by Cynthia Gralla
CHRONIC: Blame, Bodies, and Decades of Madness is a hybrid memoir/cultural theory book about how chronic illness does and does not define us. It explores how physical and mental illnesses have been conceptualized and treated over the past century in the United States, Canada, Japan, and Europe, in the process probing how we discriminate between physical sickness and mental disease, with more punitive treatments and blame for the latter. Throughout, the book poses questions about the undercurrents of sexuality surrounding those labeled “mentally ill,” particularly women. CHRONIC aims to show that the very frameworks we use to treat and categorize diseases may sabotage our chances of getting well as it narrates my own journey toward awareness and acceptance of this fact.
CHRONIC was inspired by incidents in my own life, including childhood anorexia, decades of depression, and my best friend’s death from opioid addiction. But it also considers the experiences of famous women institutionalized for mental illness, such as French sculptor Camille Claudel and Japanese artist Kusama Yayoi, and dramatizes episodes from the life of Sabina Spielrein, an early patient and lover of Carl Jung who went on to become one of the first female psychoanalysts.
By turns harrowing and humorous, CHRONIC examines how people suffering from chronic disorders are viewed by doctors, nurses, and their families; the various systems used in Japan, Canada, and the United States to stigmatize, care for, and charge the sick; how gender, class, and education level affect one’s treatment; how sickness alters one’s experience of time, language, and sex; the legal-judicial ramifications of mental illness; how technology may revise our readings of illness, if we succeed in eradicating most diseases; and how literature, both past and present, reflects stereotypes of people suffering from physical and mental disorders. Throughout the book, I draw on my broad knowledge of literary and cultural history, making connections with everything from nineteenth-century French and classical Japanese literature to the 2016 presidential election campaign, Selena Gomez, and Lady Gaga.
CHRONIC ultimately proposes the idea of “health fluidity” and discredits such notions as “pre-existing conditions” and objective mental health diagnoses. I also suggest that in order to visualize the future of recovery, we have to examine the models of the past.
With the debate over the Affordable Care Act still raging, a meditation on the power dynamics, gender politics, various costs, and cultural semantics of sickness and cures, and a reminder of the need for empathy, dignity, and hope in the face of chronic illness, could not be timelier. And in its exploration of the ways in which the mentally ill have their stories appropriated and their memories questioned, it offers a chilling parallel to the current era of “alternative facts” and “fake news.”
Excerpts from Chronic, published in Entropy and B O D Y, can be found at the following links.
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