With the proliferation of illness narratives in the late nineteenth century, many writer-turned-patients have used the written word to capture what it means to face their own morality. There are a lot of illness narratives out there that feel disingenuous or overtly sentimental—and truthfully, it’s hard to say if we can ever fully understand another person’s suffering or sickness—but we seek these stories out anyway, wanting to learn from someone else’s experiences, wanting to better understand the impact of illness on our lives and the people around us.
The best stories don’t promise inspiration or even a transformational change by the end, but promise to deliver the truth with emotional clarity and insight. Humor, even. From de-mystifying disease to self-discovery, these three memoirs seek to re-imagine what a story about illness can and should be.
1. Autobiography of a Face by Lucy Grealy
This is a memoir to the body, to a disease that was never named to Lucy Grealy as a child— at least not until much later. Grealy’s memoir centers on her childhood experiences of undergoing several operations and years of chemotherapy treatments to remove a cancerous tumor in her jaw, and the subsequent pain of fitting in, of overcoming her fear of being unloved. “It was the pain from that, from feeling ugly, that I always viewed as the great tragedy of my life,” Grealy writes. “The fact that I had cancer seemed minor in comparison.”
Page count: 256
Publish date: March 18, 2003
2. Illness as Metaphor by Susan Sontag
Written as a reaction to her own experiences with cancer, Sontag’s Illness as Metaphor can hardly be considered a memoir; in fact, Sontag rarely appears in the text. But her book, which argues for the elimination of unwanted metaphorical thinking from our responses to illness, is as personal as it is social commentary. Sontag relies on her background as a researcher and critic to debunk common metaphors using medicine, literature, philosophy, and politics to solidify her case. This must-read teaches us how we think about and talk about disease, an enlightening read for any healthcare provider, patient, family member, scholar, or student.
Page count: 87
Publish date: August 25, 2001
3. Intoxicated by My Illness by Anatole Broyard
In his autobiographical account about life with prostate cancer, Broyard writes, “the sick man sees everything as metaphor.” As a New York Times book critic and editor, he uses humor and literature in this collection of essays as a way of dealing with his diagnosis., Through these essays, he also seeks to know: How does one articulate “the imaginative life of the sick” and do it well?
Page count: 156
Publish date: June 1, 1993