Graphic Trauma: Drawing as working through sexual violence

I’m looking forward to the Comics and Medicine 2018 conference in Vermont in August. This is one of my favorite conferences and I try to attend every year. I love the cross-disciplinary, cross-practice (health, art, conceptual) aspect of the conference. This year I’m presenting a paper called “Graphic Trauma: Drawing as working through sexual violence.” Here’s my abstract:

Stories of sexual harassment and assault are currently reverberating through US cultural and political life, and #metoo has become shorthand for the hard work of testifying to experiences of violence and trauma and the difficult working through of feelings of pain and anger. We have also seen in recent years the publication of several graphic narratives that deal with sexual violence and its aftermath. In this presentation, I will explore some examples of what I call graphic trauma, a process of drawing as a form of working through the experience and event of sexual violence. In a conversation between comics critic Hillary Chute and comics artist Scott McCloud, Chute uses the phrase “the secret labor of comics” to emphasize the hidden work involved in what McCloud describes as the choices comics creators have to make in terms of “what moments to include in a story and what moments to leave out.”[1]

A key aspect of the comics form, then, is the necessity of what Chute describes as the work of condensation and distillation. Thus, I want to explore the possibility of graphic narratives as a medium well-suited for rendering trauma, and in particular the trauma of sexual violence as exemplified in Una’s Becoming Unbecoming and Lynda Barry’s One! Hundred! Demons! These works show how young women often first experience sex and sexuality as traumatic, because at the moment they are becoming sexual, their sexuality is taken away from them by a violent experience. Drawing for Una and Barry becomes a means by which they demonstrate resilience, the hard work of accessing what one can’t remember and what one can’t forget at the same time.

[1]Hillary Chute, Interview with Scott McCloud, Outside the Box: Interviews with Contemporary Cartoonists(Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2014), 29.

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My graphic semester

I integrate graphic narratives into most of my classes as one way to open up formal and methodological questions. For example, in my Documenting Mental Illness class, I had students read Ellen Forney’s graphic narrative about manic-depression, Marbles, as well as Una’s graphic narrative about sexual assault and trauma, Becoming Unbecoming. And in Cultures of Disability, students unpacked and read Chris Ware’s Building Stories. In all my classes, I encourage students to consider the form in which knowledge is presented and the methods used to gather and present evidence to back up an argument or tell a compelling story. I want students to think through the multiple ways that knowledge is produced, and I remind them that they too are knowledge producers. Because of their hybrid verbal and visual form, comics and graphic narratives thematize representation as a way of seeing, an active process rather than a reflection of reality, as John Berger described so well in another verbal/visual amalgamation, the television program and book Ways of Seeing.

[Image attribution and description. 1. on left: a still from Vincent Paronnaud & Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis of Marji striking a Bruce Lee pose. 2. on right: A panel from Nick Sousanis’s Unflattening (p. 31). The drawing is a close-up of a pair of human eyes looking directly at the viewer. The caption describes the fact that because of the “distance separating our eyes…there is a difference between the view each produces.”]

This semester I am not just incorporating comics and graphic narratives into my classes, I am taking the form itself, and its related concepts, practices, histories, and methods as an object of study. I will do this in two classes—one a freshman seminar on Comics and Medicine for students in the Science and Society undergraduate college at Stony Brook and the other an upper-level topics seminar in Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies. The freshman seminar will be a more focused study on the sub-genre/field near and dear to my heart, graphic medicine. The upper-level topics class, called Graphic Cultures, will be a more comprehensive approach that highlights how the hybrid form offers a way into practices of interdisciplinarity and intersectionality, which are so central to gender and sexuality studies.

Check out the syllabuses for these classes (and, yes, I did use comic sans font for both!).

Graphic Cultures syllabus sp18

Comics and Medicine syllabus sp18

Comics & Medicine freshman seminar

I’m teaching a freshman seminar on Comics & Medicine in the Science and Society undergraduate college at Stony Brook University this spring.

I’ve been working on the syllabus and here’s the almost-final draft:

Comics and Medicine syllabus

This is the description of the course from the syllabus:

In recent years, comics and graphic narratives have become a popular and innovative form for telling auto/biographical stories in a medium that artfully combines words and images. Our course will focus on one exciting sub-field of the form known as graphic medicine, which explores the conjuncture between comics and clinical medicine. We will discuss how comics and graphic narratives have become important resources for communicating a range of ethical and clinical issues related to the experience of illness, and how this hybrid verbal/visual form helps medical practitioners, patients, families, and caregivers creatively reimagine the boundaries of “health,” “illness,” “life,” and “death.” We will investigate the ways that graphic medicine/illness narratives can be read as symptomatic texts of our time in at least two respects: as texts that literally describe symptoms (and struggle with finding a form to describe the affective and physical experience of symptoms), and as texts that describe illness as an event that goes beyond any particular individual’s experience and account of it, reflecting wider cultural categories, including race, gender, class, and sexuality.

The image on the left is from David Wojnarowicz, James Romberger, and Marguerite van Cook’s 7 Miles a Second and the image on the right is from MK Czerwiec’s Taking Turns: Stories from HIV/AIDS Care Unit 371. Both are portraits of the artists: in one, Czerwiec stands before and is dwarfed by one of the huge Keith Haring murals at Rush University where Czerwiec studied nursing; in the other, Romberger and van Cook portray Wojnarowicz at work spray-painting a canvas. Above the artist and his canvas, an image of Wojnarowicz’s lover Peter Hujar, who died of AIDS in 1987, looks down. After I initially mis-characterized this image as a Wojnarowicz self-portrait, Romberger kindly wrote to inform me that he and van Cook created it “informed by specifics that I knew well as his friend: the layout of his apartment and that he had that particular photo of Peter on the wall, that he is working on that particular hopeful painting he did of a cosmic scientist, and doing it wearing a protective mask, necessary for a person with AIDS working with aerosol paint and which also comments ironically on the text about him breathing the air his dead friends cannot.” The caption at the top is from Wojnarowicz’s writing and begins, “I’m acutely aware of myself alive and witnessing.”

These are two of the texts we will explore in Comics & Medicine. There is so much to say, as these two images of a page and panel suggest.

 

Monster en abyme: sympathy and ill feeling in graphic Frankenstein narratives

Later this month, I’ll be participating in the symposium “Frankenstein and Popular Culture,” celebrating the 200th anniversary of the creation and publication of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. The event takes place October 27-29 at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and is organized by Susan Lederer (UW-Madison) and Lester Friedman (Hobart and William Smith Colleges).

My paper is turning into a monster with many component parts: mirrors, mise en abyme, graphic narratives, diagrams, sympathy, and ill feeling. Here are some images and my abstract.

At the very center of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is the moment when the monster first views himself in a transparent pool. This moment is in the middle of the monster’s tale which is itself nested in the middle of Dr. Frankenstein’s tale nested in the middle of Robert Walton’s letters to his sister. In a remarkably condensed footnote in his important psychoanalytic reading of Frankenstein, Peter Brooks notes that, “A diagram of the narrative structure would look like this: {[()]}.” Brooks’s diagram also looks to me like a graphic depiction of a mirror, and mirrors and mirroring are central to the complex processes of subjectification that Frankenstein enacts in both its form and content. Mirrors are also a key visual trope in graphic narratives; they are a prominent prop for staging the identity question “Who’s There?,” as Lynda Barry asks in an evocative drawing of Maybonne staring into a mirror in just one example of what I call “drawing en abyme.” My presentation will look at the operation of the mise en abyme in comics and graphic narratives of Frankenstein. In particular, I am interested in how verbal and visual depictions of doubling operate as passageways—relational vestibules or transitional spaces—between interior and exterior, subject and object, self and non-self, and between sympathy or fellow feeling and its opposite, queer or ill feeling.

Illness-thought-activism: A conversation

Check out my conversation with Jesse Miller in Full Stop about my analysis of the conjunction illness-thought-activism in my book Indirect Action and in relation to the present moment. Here’s an excerpt. The full interview can be found here.

Jesse Miller: Since Trump was elected healthcare issues have been very visibly part of the political agenda. I’m thinking about things like the threats to funding and access to Planned Parenthood and attempts to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act. And there have also been a range of responses to what you might call this “emergency time.” Things like calling senators, the women’s marches, the direct actions of disability activists associated with groups such as ADAPT. So thinking about your work as a history of the present, I’m wondering: in your research into the history of health activism what did you discover that you think is useful for understanding or responding to this moment?

Lisa Diedrich: I definitely want people to read my book in relation to what’s going on right now because I’m not sure if everybody understands that illness and how we do illness is political. And the idea that the personal is political relates very much to illness politics. I think of illness politics as similar to and connected to and intersecting with sexual politics and racial politics and class politics. Disability activists are some of the people doing this work the best right now. Because they really understand that disability is central to almost everything that we do as a society. So essential to questions about healthcare but also central to questions about policing and prisons and war and education. It’s connected to almost anything. If you look at an issue through a disability lens it gives you a really important perspective.

I just actually wrote something for a more general audience about illness politics and looking specifically at ADAPT and their work, and one of the things that I note is that I’ve seen some stuff on twitter that compares the direct actions of ADAPT to ACT UP. And so there’s a sense that ADAPT has been influenced by ACT UP. But of course ADAPT preceded ACT UP by at least 10 years. So this is precisely the kind of thing that I’m interested in, that we forget this longer history of ADAPT and of disability politics connecting back to an important movement that emerged in the late 60s and early 70s, the independent living movement. This basically was a movement for self-determination of disabled people. Gregg Bordowitz talks about how ACT UP was very interested in and influenced by these movements of self-determination. So there’s this link that would see direct connections between ADAPT and ACT UP. But with ADAPT actually being the precursor. And the fact that that’s not how we tell this story is again interesting because there’s a forgetting of the longer history of this kind of activism.

 

Illness Politics: independent living vs. personal responsibility

We are witnessing competing narratives of illness politics at work as Republicans attempt to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act. What illness looks like and how we do illness politics is contested terrain. Consider recent protests on Capitol Hill against the GOP’s Better Care Reconciliation Act draft bill. Led by disabled activists who are members of ADAPT, a disability rights organization known for its direct action tactics, the protests garnered mainstream and social media attention as images of police removing activists in wheelchairs from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s office circulated widely. Other images showed police separating ADAPT activists from their wheelchairs to arrest them. Such images of the use of force against a vulnerable population helped drive home ADAPT’s message that this bill was a matter of life and death for some. As one sign proclaimed, “Medicaid is life” for many people with disabilities. Activists like Stephanie Woodward, Gregg Beratan, Anita Cameron, and Bruce Darling put their vulnerable bodies on the line in order to generate media coverage about what was at stake—in the most material terms—in the ongoing debates about healthcare in America.

Stephanie Woodward being arrested at Senator McConnell’s office

The protests on Capitol Hill were just one of many demonstrations organized by ADAPT in what they are calling a #SummerOfADAPT. As Congress recessed for the 4th of July holiday, ADAPT activists across the country sought to communicate directly to GOP senators at their home offices about the devastating impact of Medicaid cuts. In Denver, activists conducted a sit-in at Senator Cory Gardner’s office for 58 hours in an attempt to tell the senator their concerns. Senator Gardner never met with the activists, and they were eventually arrested. Activist Carrie Ann Lucas was charged with trespassing and, because she refused to help police operate her motorized wheelchair, she was also charged with interference. Lucas’s noncooperation fits into a long history of nonviolent civil disobedience as an effective form of embodied resistance. In this case, her chair is not simply an instrument used by her body, but part of her body that went limp as the police tried to remove and arrest her.

Carrie Ann Lucas: Without Medicaid I could not live in the community.

ADAPT and its direct action political tactics are not new. Although many origin stories of this radical form of health activism start with the founding of the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP) in New York City in 1987, ADAPT pre-dates ACT UP by at least a decade. While many have made direct links between ADAPT and ACT UP, taking a longer view of health activism suggests ACT UP is a link between earlier health activist movements, including those associated with the women’s liberation movement, Civil Rights groups like the Black Panther Party and the Young Lords, anti-psychiatry, and environmental justice. This longer view would also include the Independent Living Movement (ILM), which advocates for disabled people to live in their communities not in nursing homes or other institutions, to make decisions about their own lives and care, and in general articulates an everyday ethics of self-determination.

The ILM was started by Ed Roberts in Berkeley in the early 1970s, but the movement quickly spread beyond Berkeley to other less counter-cultural milieus. The second Independent Living Center was the Atlantis Community founded by the Reverend Wade Blank in Denver in 1975. ADAPT emerged out of this local Denver disability activist environment that Atlantis cultivated and first garnered widespread media coverage in 1978 for protests calling for wheelchair-accessible public transportation. The ADAPT acronym initially stood for American Disabled for Accessible Public Transport. As the group broadened the political issues it engaged in, ADAPT maintained the acronym but adapted its meaning. Now ADAPT stands for American Disabled for Attendant Programs Today. The alternative meanings of the acronym reflect the importance of both freedom of movement in the public sphere and access to good care and assistance in both public and private spheres as necessary to enable full citizenship and participation for disabled people.

Just two days after the dramatic protests on Capitol Hill, Vice President Mike Pence articulated an alternative version of illness politics, emphasizing personal responsibility and the market as keys to good health and healthcare. Pence gave his speech in Colorado Springs at the 40th anniversary celebration of the Christian multimedia organization Focus on the Family. Like ADAPT, Focus on the Family emerged in Colorado in the late 1970s, but rather than drawing inspiration and political tactics from the new social movements of the late 1960s and early 1970s, Focus on the Family offers an alternative conservative cultural politics that goes hand-in-hand with neoliberal economic policies seeking to privatize public services, policies that gained steam in the 1980s and are predecessors of many of today’s austerity measures. In this privatized and privatizing cultural politics, the family, not the community or state, is expected to care for its own, and women are expected to function as primary carers in families. In this context, Pence used illness as metaphor for individual and social weakness, and personal responsibility and free-market competition became the solution to problems of bodily, and by extension, moral weakness.

The rhetoric of personal responsibility denies the fundamentally interdependent condition of society. It relies on a simplistic eugenics logic that suggests whole groups of people might be deemed unfit to participate and left to die. The ADAPT activists know much is at stake in this battle over healthcare. For these activists illness and disability are not metaphors. They are real material conditions of life that require creative responses at the level of both the individual and society. They challenge us to adapt—not simply our bodies and our selves, but our society—so that everyone can participate in political and social life to the fullest extent possible. What we are seeing in this #summerofADAPT is democracy in action around the question of what kind of society we want—one that would enable the many to flourish and live valuable lives, or one that protects and enables the few?

Comics and Medicine 2017: Unpacking Building Stories

As anyone who reads my blog will know, one of my favorite annual conferences is the Comics and Medicine Conference organized by the Graphic Medicine collective. The reason I love this conference is that it brings together a diverse mix of people and projects: comics artists, health practitioners, and academics who teach and write about comics and graphic narratives. My recent work explores the conjunction of illness, thought, and activism in different times and places, and the Comics and Medicine Conference has shaped how I approach this conjunction.

This year the Comics and Medicine Conference is in Seattle and the theme is Access Points. The conference artwork was designed by ET Russian, artist, performer, and creator of the Ring of Fire zine, which is a remarkable document of queer/crip as a way of life.

I am presenting a paper called “Unpacking Building Stories at home and in the classroom.”

Chris Ware’s Building Stories is all about access, not as a condition of being but as a becoming that is enacted in everyday life through the interaction between bodies and environments. In this presentation, I consider Ware’s “building stories” as his title indicates we might, with building read both as: 1. a verb, emphasizing how stories are built and crafted; and 2. an adjective, suggesting the stories of a building, not simply those stories of its inhabitants, but stories that the building itself tells with a kind of agency that Ware seeks to give the reader access to through graphic form as much as through narrative. Building Stories tells the story of an unnamed disabled woman with a prosthetic leg, but the objects and spaces that surround and sustain her have a kind of agency too.

We can’t read Building Stories in a conventional way. The stories come in a box that we explore by unpacking its contents. The box contains several cloth-bound and stapled books, differently shaped and sized pamphlets, posters, a large folded board that opens into quadriptych of the building and its occupants, etc. The phenomenology of “reading” building stories is very different from the phenomenology of reading a typical book or comic book. In the process of exploring the contents, our taken-for-granted reading practices are challenged; we are made to feel both disoriented and invigorated in the process of unpacking. Building Stories was one of the required texts in my Cultures of Dis/ability class this past spring, and thus, I also discuss the phenomenology of unpacking Building Stories in relation to teaching the text. In teaching Building Stories I had students explore the text at home and in small groups in the classroom in relation to a larger discussion of how dis/ability is enacted in different spaces. In reading Building Stories in the classroom, we asked questions about access in terms of both the spaces that facilitate (or not) inclusion and participation and in terms of the stories we build in and about those spaces.

Spaces of creativity and/as care in the films of Pedro Almodóvar (SLSA 2016)

I’m excited to be heading home to Atlanta this week for the Society for Literature, Science, and the Arts Conference. I’ll be presenting some work in progress on Pedro Almodóvar’s “brain-dead trilogy” on a panel on Film as Art and Science on Saturday, November 5 at 1:30. Here’s my rather hopeful abstract (I don’t think I’ll be able to cover everything in my presentation that I say I will here!):

In Homo Sacer,[1] Agamben develops Foucault’s concept of biopolitics, exploring biopower in relation to, and as produced by, sovereign power. Agamben argues that the concentration camp is the paradigmatic location for the exercise of biopolitics and also identifies the refugee as a modern figure of bare life. What is less frequently noted is that Agamben discusses as well the phenomenon of “coma dépassé” (a phrase he suggests might be rendered as “overcoma”), a newly emergent postmodern condition in which the threshold between life and death is redefined in the spaces of the hospital through technologies that maintain the patient as not simply alive or dead, but as living when dead. Agamben, then, like Foucault, takes medicine as an exemplary domain in and through which life and death become politicized. In this paper, I explore the emergence of this new threshold condition in medicine through an analysis of the figure of the overcomatose or brain dead patient in the films of Pedro Almodóvar.

doctors-and-manuela-simulation-scene-aammconsultation-doctors-manuela-aamm-screen-shot-2016-10-12-at-4-06-56-pm

Brain death features in three Almodóvar films made on the threshold of the millennium—The Flower of My Secret (1995), All About My Mother (1999), and Talk to Her (2002). Film critic Marsha Kinder has called this series of films Almodóvar’s “brain-dead trilogy,” and she describes the brain-dead figure as functioning to provide a “new way of refiguring the crucial link between intertextuality and changing subjectivity” that is a theme across all of Almodóvar’s work.[2] While I appreciate critical work like Kinder’s that has sought to understand brain death as metaphor in Almodóvar, in this paper I want to suggest a more literal interpretation by discussing the historical emergence of the category “brain death” and the performance of that category in clinical practices. After setting the historical and clinical scene of brain death, I will then explore how Almodóvar stages overcoma-ness as a kind of biopolitical experience and event that produces transitional figure and spaces in which new forms of creativity and care are enacted. In The Flower of My Secret, Almodóvar introduces the topic of brain death through a scene of clinical simulation that opens the film but isn’t incorporated into the film’s overall narrative. This scene is then “transplanted,” as Kinder puts it, into All About My Mother, where Almodóvar offers the practice of clinical simulation as a doctor-centered pedagogy of care that facilitates organ procurement and transplantation, a process that is made a key element of the story in All About My Mother. In contrast to this focus on the importance of simulation, Talk to Her offers what I would call modes of stimulation—through practices of affective labor, including talking, touching, and sexual healing—as a patient-centered pedagogy of care that facilitates recovery from coma. I will also show how Almodóvar’s films link the clinic with film and theater as transitional spaces of creativity and/as care.

[1] Giorgio Agamben, Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life, trans. Daniel Heller-Roazen (Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 1998).

[2] Marsha Kinder, “Reinventing the Motherland: Almodóvar’s Brain-Dead Trilogy,” Journal of Spanish Cultural Studies 5, no. 3 (October 2004), 254. The three films are not sequential in Almodóvar’s oeuvre—he made Live Flesh in 1997 in between The Flower of My Secret and All About My Mother.

Illness as metaphor, 2016

In case you missed it: at a rally in Pennsylvania, Donald Trump made fun of Hillary Clinton’s recent bout of pneumonia, imitating her stumbling into her car at the ceremony commemorating the 15th anniversary of the attacks on 9/11 in New York City. Faced with criticism about his performance in the first presidential debate, Trump tried to turn the conversation about his own temperament and preparedness for the presidency back to speculation about “Hillary’s health.”

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There have been many stories about Clinton’s health this election cycle—rampant speculation, mainly among those already not supporting her, that she is hiding a secret illness (Parkinson’s, traumatic brain injury, epilepsy have all circulated as possible diagnoses), which, if revealed, so the thinking goes, would lead Americans to conclude that she could not be president. On twitter, the hashtag #sickHillary purportedly provides ample evidence that Hillary is not well, feeble even, requiring help getting in and out of cars, walking up steps, needing someone by her side at all times should she fall or find herself unable to speak. Her physical illness is believed by some to be an outward sign of her moral depravity–#sickHillary reveals #crookedHillary. Following Clinton’s “coughing fit” while campaigning in Ohio over Labor Day weekend, rightwing media outlet Breitbart News called Clinton a “Choke Artist,” going for a triple entendre suggesting illness politics, sexual politics, and electoral politics all rolled into one.

The phenomenon of illness as metaphor for individual and social weakness is not new, as Susan Sontag trenchantly argued in Illness as Metaphor, her now classic 1978 essay on the cultural politics of illness. I have written extensively on how narratives of illness can be read as symptomatic of wider cultural categories, including race, gender, class, and sexuality. This is what I call illness politics, and the 2016 U.S. presidential election is a case in point of the way illness politics is informed by and inseparable from sexual, racial, and class politics. While it’s true that every four years the question of the health of the candidates becomes an issue in presidential politics, there is clearly something more going on this year. I would go so far as to say that in this election cycle we have frequently been treated to illness politics standing in for sexual, racial, and class politics.

illness-as-metaphor-coversusan-sontag-circa-1975-by-peter-hujar1978-01-26-600x0-c-default

Sontag’s short polemic chronicles a long history of the metaphoric uses of illness in literature, popular culture, and politics. Sontag’s motivation for writing Illness as Metaphor was not simply to explore a changing cultural and political landscape of illness. Instead, with her already by then legendary bravado, Sontag proposed to elucidate the uses of illness as metaphor with the ultimate goal of purifying the experience of illness of metaphoric thinking. For Sontag, this was the “most truthful way of regarding illness—and the healthiest way of being ill.”[1] And yet, despite her call for the de-metaphorization of the experience of illness, in many respects the opposite has happened in the four decades since she published her polemic: illness is now more metaphorized than ever.

In the 2016 race, both candidates have sought to show the other as unfit for the presidency. Since even before he was candidate and Republican party nominee, Trump has relied on what I would describe as a eugenics logic that portrays his opponents as weak, sick, and neurotic. For Trump, illness is a useful metaphor to suggest an America in decline. Trump has characterized President Obama as a weak man whose presidency has threatened the strength of the nation itself. His birther conspiracy theories don’t simply seek to question whether Obama was born in the United States; they also work to draw attention to his mixed race and mixed national heritage, conjuring the specter of degeneration. A similarly indirect association is at work in attempts to suggest Clinton is unfit. Her wealth of experience seems to preclude a bluntly sexist dismissal of her as unqualified, but not the circulation of rumors that she is suffering from a degenerative disease so far kept hidden from most Americans. This hidden illness narrative also works to further the impression Trump wants to give that Clinton is keeping other secrets from Americans too.

Of course, Donald Trump has also been diagnosed by his opponents as unfit. If the weak Obama and sick Hillary illness narratives conjure an older eugenics logic, the attack on Trump’s fitness draws on a newer narrative—that of the personality disorder. Disability activists and scholars have rightly expressed concern that diagnosing Trump’s bad behavior as mental illness is stigmatizing to people who actually suffer from mental illness.[2] And yet, in a fascinating reversal of stigmatization, it appears that the diagnosis of Trump’s purported narcissistic personality disorder is not without its benefits for the candidate himself. In pop psychology and culture, such powerful if unpleasant personalities have been linked to success, especially in the business world. In a recent interview, Trump described his temperament in business terms as “the single greatest asset I have,” turning a potential weakness into a purported strength.

It is helpful to consider the uses of illness as metaphor in 2016 within the context of a longer history of illness politics. In one of his “Doctor’s World” columns in the New York Times published a month before the 1992 presidential election, Lawrence K. Altman, M.D. discussed what the article’s title identified as the “disturbing issue of Kennedy’s secret illness.” Altman noted that “many Presidents have suffered serious illness while in the White House. All too often they, their families and aides have misled, if not lied to, the public about their health, with the malady becoming known only many years later.” Altman goes on to discuss a then just-published report in the Journal of the American Medical Association in which pathologists who were at John F. Kennedy’s autopsy revealed that Kennedy’s adrenal glands were “almost completely gone,” confirming that he had Addison’s disease, a diagnosis he and his family had always denied, including during the 1960 presidential election.[3] Altman maintains that if the public had known in 1960 that Kennedy had Addison’s, he might have lost what was a very close election to Richard Nixon.

Altman points out that since 1960 there has been an “enormous expansion of coverage of health issues” in the media.[4] I contend that the 1960s and 1970s is also the moment when illness (both mental and physical) begins to figure as a site of political struggle, though it has been largely overshadowed in contemporary interpretations of the period by a focus on gender, race, and sexuality as sites of struggle. Many have noted that Trump’s call to “make America great again” is an attempt to hearken back to a 1950s America that is more fantasy than reality. The illness politics of the 2016 presidential election suggest a wish by some to go back in time to before 1960, to before the rise of the new social movements that made it possible for us to have the first African American president and possibly the first woman president. Hearkening back to before 1960 when America could hardly imagine the reality of an African American or  woman president should also remind us that in 2016 we have yet to adequately trouble the ableist assumption of illness as disqualifying.

 

[1] Susan Sontag, Illness as Metaphor (New York: Vintage, 1978), 3.

[2] See, for example, David M. Perry, “‘What if Trump really is crazy?’” Accessed at: http://www.thismess.net/2016/08/what-if-trump-really-is-crazy.html

[3] Breo, Dennis L., “JFK’s Death: The Plain Truth from the MDs Who Did the Autopsy,” JAMA: The Journal of the American Medical Association 267, No. 20 (May 27, 1992): 2794.

[4] Coverage of health issues has expanded even further since Altman was writing in the early 1990s, what with the rise of the cable news industry in the 1990s and social media in the 2000s. Altman’s column is an early example of a doctor commentariat, a phenomenon that has also featured prominently in the 2016 election, for example, in the extensive coverage of Dr. Mehmet Oz’s “examination” of Trump’s health data.