Academic journal article Hecate

Shoes That Light Up: Women's Memoirs of Illness and Disability

Academic journal article Hecate

Shoes That Light Up: Women's Memoirs of Illness and Disability

Article excerpt

Following a protracted illness and the diagnosis of an autoimmune condition, I became interested in the question of what kind of meanings are made of illness in Western countries where, supposedly, world standard medical care is available and patient choices are emphasized. What sort of ideas are circulating and what might women's memoirs have to offer on the subject? What follows is close readings of several memoirs1 in order to critique some alarmingly prevalent notions about illness, its 'causes' and 'cures' and the ways in which women are dis-empowered by a number of contradictory discourses within medicine and the wider community. I offer, as well, a brief description of my own illness in order to situate the paper and, following Nancy K. Miller's lead, to engage in an 'explicitly autobiographical act within the act of criticism.'2

To set some parameters: the discussion will centre thematically on the notion of listening and bearing witness and on a critique of some of the damaging beliefs still circulating in the hope that women can avoid participating in such received knowledges. The works can be read as well for issues of representation. The dominance of capitalist visions of young, beautiful, white people, healthy and affluent, will be juxtaposed with the realities of isolation, poverty, and a deep sense of invisibility often experienced by women with major illness or disability. The term illness is used tactically here in preference to the term 'disease' which has become replete with meanings.3

Susan Sontag's Illness as Metaphor* was first published in 1977. Almost thirty years later, Sontag's critique of cultural attitudes toward illness still has relevance.

Illness is the night-side of life, a more onerous citizenship. Everyone who is born holds dual citizenship, in the kingdom of the well and in the kingdom of the sick. Although we all prefer to use only the good passport, sooner or later each of us is obliged, at least for a spell, to identify ourselves as citizens of that other place, s

One might think of women memoirists in this case, as emissaries from the kingdom of the sick, reminding us of the tenuous status of our passport to being well and entreating us to consider the material and social conditions of the land we are sooner or later going to inhabit.

Sontag goes on to discuss the 'lurid metaphors' with which the 'kingdom of the ill' has been 'landscaped.' Her argument is that it has become much harder in advanced industrial societies to come to terms with death to the point where 'death is an offensively meaningless event so that disease (she refers here especially to cancer) widely considered a synonym for death is experienced as something to hide.'6

Sontag's view is that some diseases are seen as worse, metaphorically, than others. In particular she describes the contrasting views, historically and in literature, of cancer and of tuberculosis as, respectively, being the target of 'punitive or sentimental fantasies'. She compares TB to cancer, the former a romanticized disease, the latter not,7 and then goes on to chart and challenge the metaphors for the two kinds of illness, examining the sources for the 'current fancy that associates cancer with repression of passion.'8

I digress now to disability, and how often well-meaning people have opined, having never met my grand-daughter who has Down Syndrome, that such children anyhow are 'happy' and 'loving' which must be some comfort - the larger assumption being that the birth of a child with a disability is a great misfortune. Another stereotype that has come to my attention in the past two years regarding illness includes the supposed connection between arthritic conditions and rigidity of personality.

To return to Sontag before moving on to the memoirs, an important part of her argument centres on blame and the habit of psychologising around illness. She traces an early instance of this thought in Karl Menninger's proposition that: 'Illness is in part what the world has done to a victim, but in larger part it is what the victim has done with his world, and with himself. …

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