Journal of Literary & Cultural Disability Studies

Mind the Gap

From Empathy to Erasure in Narrative Fiction

Journal of Literary & Cultural Disability Studies (2020), 14, (3), 353–369.

Abstract

The “narrative turn” in biomedical discourses has dominated twenty-first-century medical humanities, pursuing the premise that narratives of illness, including patient and literary narratives, contribute toward our understanding of illness because they encourage us to reflect upon lived reality and even to imagine events and experiences with which we may be grossly unfamiliar (Charon et al.; Charon; Oyebode; Halpern; Altschuler). However, an emerging critical approach to the medical and health humanities challenges the assumption that narrative is incontestably and straightforwardly valuable for understanding illness. Following the work of Ahmed, Keen, Bishop, Jurecic, Whitehead and Woods, and Whitehead, the article suggests that narrative fiction may not cultivate empathy for another person, but may draw attention to the limitations of understanding another’s experience by encouraging us to look out for, and even to imagine, the multiple ways in which we experience the world differently to others. With a focus on the experience of dementia-related diseases—including Alzheimer’s disease—in B. S. Johnson’s House Mother Normal, the article shows that metafiction may not help us to empathize with others so much as it may problematize our ability to empathize in ways that are ethically valuable for an understanding of subjectivity, illness, and experience.

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Works Cited

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Bitenc, Rebecca. Reconsidering Dementia Narratives: Empathy, Identity and Care. Abingdon: Routledge, 2020. Print. Google Scholar

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Couser, G. Thomas. Vulnerable Subjects: Ethics and Life Writing. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 2018. Print. Google Scholar

Falcus, Sarah and Katsura Sako. Contemporary Narratives of Dementia: Ethics, Ageing, Politics. Abingdon: Routledge, 2016. Print. Google Scholar

Fitzgerald, Des and Felicity Callard. “Entangling the Medical Humanities.” The Edinburgh Companion to the Critical Medical Humanities. Ed. Anne Whitehead and Angela Woods Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP, 2016. 35-49. Print. Google Scholar

Guignery, Vanessa. Ceci n’est pas une fiction: les romans vrais de B. S. Johnson. Paris: PUPS, 2009. Print. Google Scholar

Guignery, Vanessa. “Ethics and Experimentation in B. S. Johnson’s HMN.” The Ethical Component in Experimental British Fiction since the 1960’s. Ed. Susana Onega and Jean-Michel Ganteau. Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars, 2007. 50-70. Print. Google Scholar

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Johnson, B. S. House Mother Normal. 1971. London: Picador, 2013. Print. Google Scholar

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Jurecic, Ann. “Empathy and the Critic.” College English 74.1 (2011): 10-27. JSTOR. Web. 20 Dec. 2019. Google Scholar

Jurecic, Ann. Illness as Narrative. Pittsburgh: Pittsburgh UP, 2012. Print. Google Scholar

Keen, Suzanne. Empathy and the Novel. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2007. Print. Google Scholar

Kruger, Naomi. “The ‘Terrifying Question Mark’: Dementia, Fiction, and the Possibilities of Narrative.” Popularizing Dementia: Public Expressions and Representations of Forgetfulness. Ed. Mark Schweda and Aagje Swinnen. Bielefeld: Verlag, 2015. 109-33. Print. Google Scholar

Krüger-Fürhoff, Irmela M. “Narrating the Limits of Narration: Alzheimer’s Disease in Contemporary Literary Texts.” Popularizing Dementia: Public Expressions and Representations of Forgetfulness. Ed. Mark Schweda and Aagje Swinnen. Bielefeld: Verlag, 2015. 89-108. Print. Google Scholar

Maginess, Tess. Dementia and Literature: Interdisciplinary Perspectives. Abingdon: Routledge, 2018. Print. Google Scholar

McGeough, Jared. “B. S. Johnson’s ‘Introduction’ to Aren’t You Rather Young to be Writing Your Memoirs? The Memoir between Life and Literature.” Re-Reading B. S. Johnson. Ed. Philip Tew and Glyn White. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007. 132-42. Print. Google Scholar

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Nussbaum, Martha. Love’s Knowledge: Essays on Philosophy and Literature. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1990. Print. Google Scholar

Nussbaum, Martha. Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities. Princeton: Princeton UP, 2010. Print. Google Scholar

Nussbaum, Martha. Upheavals of Thought: The Intelligence of Emotions. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2001. Print. Google Scholar

“Obama to Graduates: Cultivate Empathy.” northwestern.edu, 19 Jun. 2006. Web. 24 Jan. 2020. Google Scholar

Oyebode, Femi. “The Medical Humanities: Literature and Medicine.” Clinical Medicine 10.3 (2010): 242-44. ProQuest. Web. 8 Jul. 2019. Google Scholar

Parrinder, Patrick. The Failure of Theory: Essays on Criticism and Contemporary Fiction. Brighton: Harvester P, 1987. Print. Google Scholar

Pedwell, Carolyn. Affective Relations: The Transnational Politics of Emotion. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014. Print. Google Scholar

Ricoeur, Paul. Oneself as Another. 1990. Trans. Kathleen Blamey. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1994. Print. Google Scholar

Ricoeur, Paul. Time and Narrative, Volume 3. 1985. Trans. Kathleen Blamey and David Pellauer. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1988. Print. Google Scholar

Rorty, Richard. Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1989. Print. Google Scholar

Rorty, Richard. Truth and Progress: Philosophical Papers, Volume 3. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1998. Print. Google Scholar

Schweda, Mark and Aagje Swinnen. Popularizing Dementia: Public Expressions and Representations of Forgetfulness. Bielefeld: Verlag, 2015. Print. Google Scholar

Tew, Philip. B. S. Johnson: A Critical Reading. Manchester: Manchester UP, 2001. Print. Google Scholar

Tredell, Nicolas. Fighting Fictions: The Novels of B. S. Johnson. Nottingham: Paupers’ Press, 2000. Print. Google Scholar

Walker, Peter. “‘Empathy Bypass’: Jo Swinson Attacks PM in Tactical Voting Call.” 10 Dec. 2019. The Guardian. Web. 30 Jan. 2020. Google Scholar

Whitehead, Anne. Medicine and Empathy in Contemporary British Fiction: An Intervention in Medical Humanities. Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP, 2017. Print. Google Scholar

Whitehead, Anne and Angela Woods. The Edinburgh Companion to the Critical Medical Humanities. Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP, 2016. Print. Google Scholar

Zunshine, Lisa. Why We Read Fiction: Theory of Mind and the Novel. Columbus: Ohio UP, 2006. Print. Google Scholar

Ahmed, Sara. The Cultural Politics of Emotion. Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP, 2004. Print. Google Scholar

Altschuler, Sari. The Medical Imagination: Literature and Health in the Early United States. Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, 2018. Print. Google Scholar

Bernaerts, Lars. “Minds at Play: Narrative Games and Fictional Minds in B. S. Johnson’s House Mother Normal.” Style 48.3 (2014): 294-312. ProQuest. Web. 6 Jan. 2020. Google Scholar

Bishop, John. “Rejecting Medical Humanism: Medical Humanities and the Metaphysics of Medicine.” Journal of Medical Humanities 29 (2008): 15-25. EBSCOhost. Web. 5 Jan. 2020. Google Scholar

Bitenc, Rebecca. Reconsidering Dementia Narratives: Empathy, Identity and Care. Abingdon: Routledge, 2020. Print. Google Scholar

Bruner, Jerome. “Life as Narrative.” Social Research 54.1 (1987): 11-32. ProQuest. Web. 20 Dec. 2019. Google Scholar

Ahmed, Sara. The Cultural Politics of Emotion. Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP, 2004. Print. Google Scholar

Bruner, Jerome. Making Stories: Law, Literature, Life [2002]. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2003. Print. Google Scholar

Altschuler, Sari. The Medical Imagination: Literature and Health in the Early United States. Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, 2018. Print. Google Scholar

Bruner, Jerome. “Self-Making Narratives.” Autobiographical Memory and the Construction of a Narrative Self: Developmental and Cultural Perspectives. Ed. Robyn Fivush and Catherine A. Haden. New York: Psychology P, 2013. 209-25. Print. Google Scholar

Bernaerts, Lars. “Minds at Play: Narrative Games and Fictional Minds in B. S. Johnson’s House Mother Normal.” Style 48.3 (2014): 294-312. ProQuest. Web. 6 Jan. 2020. Google Scholar

Buchanan, Bradley. “Exemplary B. S.: B. S. Johnson and the Toronto Research Group.” Re-Reading B. S. Johnson. Ed. Philip Tew and Glyn White. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007. 161-74. Print. Google Scholar

Bishop, John. “Rejecting Medical Humanism: Medical Humanities and the Metaphysics of Medicine.” Journal of Medical Humanities 29 (2008): 15-25. EBSCOhost. Web. 5 Jan. 2020. Google Scholar

Burke, Lucy. “The Locus of our Dis-Ease: Narratives of Family Life in the Age of Alzheimer’s.” Popularizing Dementia: Public Expressions and Representations of Forgetfulness. Ed. Mark Schweda and Aagje Swinnen. Bielefeld: Verlag, 2015. 23-41. Print. Google Scholar

Bitenc, Rebecca. Reconsidering Dementia Narratives: Empathy, Identity and Care. Abingdon: Routledge, 2020. Print. Google Scholar

Charon, Rita. Narrative Medicine: Honoring the Stories of Illness. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2006. Print. Google Scholar

Bruner, Jerome. “Life as Narrative.” Social Research 54.1 (1987): 11-32. ProQuest. Web. 20 Dec. 2019. Google Scholar

Charon, Rita, et al. “Literature and Medicine: Contributions to Clinical Practice.” Annals of Internal Medicine 122.8 (1995): 599-606. Print. Google Scholar

Bruner, Jerome. Making Stories: Law, Literature, Life [2002]. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2003. Print. Google Scholar

Bruner, Jerome. “Self-Making Narratives.” Autobiographical Memory and the Construction of a Narrative Self: Developmental and Cultural Perspectives. Ed. Robyn Fivush and Catherine A. Haden. New York: Psychology P, 2013. 209-25. Print. Google Scholar

Couser, G. Thomas. Vulnerable Subjects: Ethics and Life Writing. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 2018. Print. Google Scholar

Buchanan, Bradley. “Exemplary B. S.: B. S. Johnson and the Toronto Research Group.” Re-Reading B. S. Johnson. Ed. Philip Tew and Glyn White. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007. 161-74. Print. Google Scholar

Falcus, Sarah and Katsura Sako. Contemporary Narratives of Dementia: Ethics, Ageing, Politics. Abingdon: Routledge, 2016. Print. Google Scholar

Fitzgerald, Des and Felicity Callard. “Entangling the Medical Humanities.” The Edinburgh Companion to the Critical Medical Humanities. Ed. Anne Whitehead and Angela Woods Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP, 2016. 35-49. Print. Google Scholar

Burke, Lucy. “The Locus of our Dis-Ease: Narratives of Family Life in the Age of Alzheimer’s.” Popularizing Dementia: Public Expressions and Representations of Forgetfulness. Ed. Mark Schweda and Aagje Swinnen. Bielefeld: Verlag, 2015. 23-41. Print. Google Scholar

Charon, Rita. Narrative Medicine: Honoring the Stories of Illness. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2006. Print. Google Scholar

Guignery, Vanessa. Ceci n’est pas une fiction: les romans vrais de B. S. Johnson. Paris: PUPS, 2009. Print. Google Scholar

Charon, Rita, et al. “Literature and Medicine: Contributions to Clinical Practice.” Annals of Internal Medicine 122.8 (1995): 599-606. Print. Google Scholar

Guignery, Vanessa. “Ethics and Experimentation in B. S. Johnson’s HMN.” The Ethical Component in Experimental British Fiction since the 1960’s. Ed. Susana Onega and Jean-Michel Ganteau. Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars, 2007. 50-70. Print. Google Scholar

Couser, G. Thomas. Vulnerable Subjects: Ethics and Life Writing. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 2018. Print. Google Scholar

Halpern, Jodi. From Detached Concern to Empathy: Humanizing Medical Practice. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2001. Print. Google Scholar

Falcus, Sarah and Katsura Sako. Contemporary Narratives of Dementia: Ethics, Ageing, Politics. Abingdon: Routledge, 2016. Print. Google Scholar

Johnson, B. S. House Mother Normal. 1971. London: Picador, 2013. Print. Google Scholar

Jones, Nicholas. “‘He Would Be Working at the Welsh Books’: B.S. Johnson and the Two Literatures of Wales.” Re-reading B. S. Johnson. Ed. Philip Tew and Glyn White. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007. 189-201. Print. Google Scholar

Fitzgerald, Des and Felicity Callard. “Entangling the Medical Humanities.” The Edinburgh Companion to the Critical Medical Humanities. Ed. Anne Whitehead and Angela Woods Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP, 2016. 35-49. Print. Google Scholar

Guignery, Vanessa. Ceci n’est pas une fiction: les romans vrais de B. S. Johnson. Paris: PUPS, 2009. Print. Google Scholar

Jurecic, Ann. “Empathy and the Critic.” College English 74.1 (2011): 10-27. JSTOR. Web. 20 Dec. 2019. Google Scholar

Guignery, Vanessa. “Ethics and Experimentation in B. S. Johnson’s HMN.” The Ethical Component in Experimental British Fiction since the 1960’s. Ed. Susana Onega and Jean-Michel Ganteau. Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars, 2007. 50-70. Print. Google Scholar

Jurecic, Ann. Illness as Narrative. Pittsburgh: Pittsburgh UP, 2012. Print. Google Scholar

Halpern, Jodi. From Detached Concern to Empathy: Humanizing Medical Practice. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2001. Print. Google Scholar

Keen, Suzanne. Empathy and the Novel. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2007. Print. Google Scholar

Johnson, B. S. House Mother Normal. 1971. London: Picador, 2013. Print. Google Scholar

Kruger, Naomi. “The ‘Terrifying Question Mark’: Dementia, Fiction, and the Possibilities of Narrative.” Popularizing Dementia: Public Expressions and Representations of Forgetfulness. Ed. Mark Schweda and Aagje Swinnen. Bielefeld: Verlag, 2015. 109-33. Print. Google Scholar

Krüger-Fürhoff, Irmela M. “Narrating the Limits of Narration: Alzheimer’s Disease in Contemporary Literary Texts.” Popularizing Dementia: Public Expressions and Representations of Forgetfulness. Ed. Mark Schweda and Aagje Swinnen. Bielefeld: Verlag, 2015. 89-108. Print. Google Scholar

Jones, Nicholas. “‘He Would Be Working at the Welsh Books’: B.S. Johnson and the Two Literatures of Wales.” Re-reading B. S. Johnson. Ed. Philip Tew and Glyn White. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007. 189-201. Print. Google Scholar

Jurecic, Ann. “Empathy and the Critic.” College English 74.1 (2011): 10-27. JSTOR. Web. 20 Dec. 2019. Google Scholar

Maginess, Tess. Dementia and Literature: Interdisciplinary Perspectives. Abingdon: Routledge, 2018. Print. Google Scholar

Jurecic, Ann. Illness as Narrative. Pittsburgh: Pittsburgh UP, 2012. Print. Google Scholar

McGeough, Jared. “B. S. Johnson’s ‘Introduction’ to Aren’t You Rather Young to be Writing Your Memoirs? The Memoir between Life and Literature.” Re-Reading B. S. Johnson. Ed. Philip Tew and Glyn White. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007. 132-42. Print. Google Scholar

Keen, Suzanne. Empathy and the Novel. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2007. Print. Google Scholar

Motion, Andrew. Introduction. House Mother Normal, by B. S. Johnson. London: Picador, 2013. v-ix. Print. Google Scholar

Kruger, Naomi. “The ‘Terrifying Question Mark’: Dementia, Fiction, and the Possibilities of Narrative.” Popularizing Dementia: Public Expressions and Representations of Forgetfulness. Ed. Mark Schweda and Aagje Swinnen. Bielefeld: Verlag, 2015. 109-33. Print. Google Scholar

Nussbaum, Martha. Love’s Knowledge: Essays on Philosophy and Literature. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1990. Print. Google Scholar

Krüger-Fürhoff, Irmela M. “Narrating the Limits of Narration: Alzheimer’s Disease in Contemporary Literary Texts.” Popularizing Dementia: Public Expressions and Representations of Forgetfulness. Ed. Mark Schweda and Aagje Swinnen. Bielefeld: Verlag, 2015. 89-108. Print. Google Scholar

Nussbaum, Martha. Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities. Princeton: Princeton UP, 2010. Print. Google Scholar

Maginess, Tess. Dementia and Literature: Interdisciplinary Perspectives. Abingdon: Routledge, 2018. Print. Google Scholar

Nussbaum, Martha. Upheavals of Thought: The Intelligence of Emotions. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2001. Print. Google Scholar

“Obama to Graduates: Cultivate Empathy.” northwestern.edu, 19 Jun. 2006. Web. 24 Jan. 2020. Google Scholar

McGeough, Jared. “B. S. Johnson’s ‘Introduction’ to Aren’t You Rather Young to be Writing Your Memoirs? The Memoir between Life and Literature.” Re-Reading B. S. Johnson. Ed. Philip Tew and Glyn White. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007. 132-42. Print. Google Scholar

Oyebode, Femi. “The Medical Humanities: Literature and Medicine.” Clinical Medicine 10.3 (2010): 242-44. ProQuest. Web. 8 Jul. 2019. Google Scholar

Motion, Andrew. Introduction. House Mother Normal, by B. S. Johnson. London: Picador, 2013. v-ix. Print. Google Scholar

Parrinder, Patrick. The Failure of Theory: Essays on Criticism and Contemporary Fiction. Brighton: Harvester P, 1987. Print. Google Scholar

Nussbaum, Martha. Love’s Knowledge: Essays on Philosophy and Literature. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1990. Print. Google Scholar

Pedwell, Carolyn. Affective Relations: The Transnational Politics of Emotion. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014. Print. Google Scholar

Nussbaum, Martha. Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities. Princeton: Princeton UP, 2010. Print. Google Scholar

Ricoeur, Paul. Oneself as Another. 1990. Trans. Kathleen Blamey. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1994. Print. Google Scholar

Nussbaum, Martha. Upheavals of Thought: The Intelligence of Emotions. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2001. Print. Google Scholar

Ricoeur, Paul. Time and Narrative, Volume 3. 1985. Trans. Kathleen Blamey and David Pellauer. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1988. Print. Google Scholar

“Obama to Graduates: Cultivate Empathy.” northwestern.edu, 19 Jun. 2006. Web. 24 Jan. 2020. Google Scholar

Oyebode, Femi. “The Medical Humanities: Literature and Medicine.” Clinical Medicine 10.3 (2010): 242-44. ProQuest. Web. 8 Jul. 2019. Google Scholar

Rorty, Richard. Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1989. Print. Google Scholar

Parrinder, Patrick. The Failure of Theory: Essays on Criticism and Contemporary Fiction. Brighton: Harvester P, 1987. Print. Google Scholar

Rorty, Richard. Truth and Progress: Philosophical Papers, Volume 3. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1998. Print. Google Scholar

Schweda, Mark and Aagje Swinnen. Popularizing Dementia: Public Expressions and Representations of Forgetfulness. Bielefeld: Verlag, 2015. Print. Google Scholar

Pedwell, Carolyn. Affective Relations: The Transnational Politics of Emotion. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014. Print. Google Scholar

Tew, Philip. B. S. Johnson: A Critical Reading. Manchester: Manchester UP, 2001. Print. Google Scholar

Ricoeur, Paul. Oneself as Another. 1990. Trans. Kathleen Blamey. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1994. Print. Google Scholar

Tredell, Nicolas. Fighting Fictions: The Novels of B. S. Johnson. Nottingham: Paupers’ Press, 2000. Print. Google Scholar

Ricoeur, Paul. Time and Narrative, Volume 3. 1985. Trans. Kathleen Blamey and David Pellauer. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1988. Print. Google Scholar

Walker, Peter. “‘Empathy Bypass’: Jo Swinson Attacks PM in Tactical Voting Call.” 10 Dec. 2019. The Guardian. Web. 30 Jan. 2020. Google Scholar

Rorty, Richard. Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1989. Print. Google Scholar

Rorty, Richard. Truth and Progress: Philosophical Papers, Volume 3. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1998. Print. Google Scholar

Whitehead, Anne. Medicine and Empathy in Contemporary British Fiction: An Intervention in Medical Humanities. Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP, 2017. Print. Google Scholar

Schweda, Mark and Aagje Swinnen. Popularizing Dementia: Public Expressions and Representations of Forgetfulness. Bielefeld: Verlag, 2015. Print. Google Scholar

Whitehead, Anne and Angela Woods. The Edinburgh Companion to the Critical Medical Humanities. Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP, 2016. Print. Google Scholar

Zunshine, Lisa. Why We Read Fiction: Theory of Mind and the Novel. Columbus: Ohio UP, 2006. Print. Google Scholar

Tew, Philip. B. S. Johnson: A Critical Reading. Manchester: Manchester UP, 2001. Print. Google Scholar

Tredell, Nicolas. Fighting Fictions: The Novels of B. S. Johnson. Nottingham: Paupers’ Press, 2000. Print. Google Scholar

Walker, Peter. “‘Empathy Bypass’: Jo Swinson Attacks PM in Tactical Voting Call.” 10 Dec. 2019. The Guardian. Web. 30 Jan. 2020. Google Scholar

Whitehead, Anne. Medicine and Empathy in Contemporary British Fiction: An Intervention in Medical Humanities. Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP, 2017. Print. Google Scholar

Whitehead, Anne and Angela Woods. The Edinburgh Companion to the Critical Medical Humanities. Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP, 2016. Print. Google Scholar

Zunshine, Lisa. Why We Read Fiction: Theory of Mind and the Novel. Columbus: Ohio UP, 2006. Print. Google Scholar

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Tynan, Avril