Arthur W. Frank’s The Wounded Storyteller, which I’m currently reading, deals with medical ethics, personal narrative, illness, and the community (all of us, really) who may need care, give care, and/or who realize there is a socio-emotional impact when friends, coworkers, and family members become ill and thus require care. A sociologist by training, Frank examines illness stories as testimonies that point to a social ethic and asks all of us both to tell more when we experience pain and to listen better when others are telling us about their experiences of illness.
“Tell me about your despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.”—Mary Oliver, from “Wild Geese”
At first this idea sounds unpleasant–one thinks of the stereotype of tedious conversations among the elderly about various surgeries and too-intimate revelations about prostates, livers, stomachs, and bowels (my dad calls these monologues “organ recitals”). That response–evasion, withdrawal, revulsion–is exactly what Frank seeks to change.
But then I consider the way I have heard stories of illness experience from hospice patients. How varied they can be. Some fragmented, some specific, some pious, some stoic, some anxious. And some that are beautiful. These stories aren’t just for (about) the person who has undergone the suffering. They are also for me, the listener. “When any person recovers his voice,” says Frank, “many people begin to speak through that story.”
He later writes:
One of our most difficult duties as human beings is to listen to the voices of those who suffer. The voices of the ill are easy to ignore, because these voices are often faltering in tone and mixed in message, particularly in their spoken form before some editor has rendered them fit for reading by the healthy. These voices bespeak conditions of embodiment that most of us would rather forget our own vulnerability to. Listening is hard, but it is a fundamental moral act…in listening for the other, we listen for ourselves. The moment of witness in the story crystallizes a mutuality of need, when each is for the other.
He would like to see an ethics among medical people and caregivers that dictates not just a compassion for the lot of the ill person but a perspective that the person, as a person, is not diminished by the fact of illness–not made into data, case study, or even into patient or client, any of which reduces the person to a body containing disease or disability. He argues for a full embodiment of pain in narrative as well as in physiology, for only with and through storytelling can we begin to experience the perspective of the other.
I am not very far into the book yet, but I’m finding the concepts relevant to my current life circumstances. I know how deeply I treasure a good listener. So working on listening better, myself, offers more people the chance to recover their voices, to speak through story.