Editorial: Illness, Narrated


Stay healthy, stay safe. The new closing remark to many emails, phone calls and conversations is telling of a radical change in the perception of illness that took place during 2020/2021. Living and working through the COVID-19 pandemic have given a new urgency to the commonplace phrase, adding weight to an offhand farewell. This new signature does more than wish the other well; it also acknowledges a communal present that affects everyone, from the individual to national societies and global relations. Health, and its precarious situation, has found its way into people’s homes, where incidences, virologists’ opinions and mutant forms are discussed over dinner. “Stay healthy” indicates our hopes for the other not to be infected; “stay safe” marks our hopes that they keep viral threats at bay. The realities of constantly being on a spectrum of health and illness has intruded on daily life and gone beyond conversations with medical professionals or intimates to become ‘the talk,’ a communal and shared present.

“You Can’t Combat Nothing”

Allie Brosh’s Hyperbole and a Half and Reframing Mental Illness Through Webcomics


Amidst the powerfully democratizing, public spheres of Web 2.0, life writing has taken on new geographies and forms of mobility through webcomics. As an experimental mode of self-representation, webcomics are part of an urgent, digital turn in autobiographical writing, where speaking to one’s personal experiences also takes place within the social economies of the Internet. This paper analyzes webcomics as a compelling new dimension of autobiographical illness narrative, using Allie Brosh’s webcomic blog, Hyperbole and a Half, as its case study. Launched in 2009 on the free blog platform, Blogspot, Brosh’s deceptively simplistic aesthetic and comically dark representation of mental illness has since amassed near-cult following online. Drawing on the discipline of life writing and from comics studies, I aim to position Brosh’s webcomics within the field of graphic medicine and to explore how they might expand conventional understandings of illness within this contextual frame. Brosh’s work is a significant precursor to hybrid forms of illness narrative still emerging from digital spaces — this paper asks how webcomics capitalize on both the affordances of the Internet and the aesthetic of comics to connect audiences across vast distances with collective experiences of everyday illness.

Through the Eyes of Peter Pan

Internalizing Mental Illness via Animation in the Documentary Life, Animated


This article discusses to what extent the documentary film, through its aesthetic strategies and narrative style, spotlights the topic of mental illness, contributing to society’s acceptance of this taboo topic. The 2016 documentary Life, Animated, which integrates animations into its presentation, gives insights into the concrete possibilities of negotiating the topic of mental disorders. A discourse-analytical examination embeds the film in a larger context and focuses on the crisis of the documentary film under the sign of hybrid forms combining fact and fiction. The article shows how these hybrid formats both question the documentary film’s claim to reality and offer the opportunity to find images conveying inner states, and highlights that an extension of the possibilities of representation, such as the integration of animation in documentaries, allows conditions that are completely unknown to the viewers to be immersively experienced, thereby contributing to their de-stigmatization.

The Madwoman in the Cellar

Trauma and Gender After Both World Wars — A Field Study of Psychiatric Files


By utilizing practical examples from the Abteilung für Psychatrie [psychiatric ward] at the Landeskrankenanstalt [province hospital] in Carinthia, Austria, in the wake of the two World Wars, this article seeks to explore the stories of hospitalized women and girls after armistices and peace treaties. Whereas the dialectics of conflict and resulting post-conflict traumas became increasingly accepted by medics for combatants during that time frame, this was not necessarily the case for comparable traumatic experiences of female civilians. Instead, for these patients, the Freudian definition of hysteria prevailed as a stereotypical ‘feminine’ symptom. Accordingly, post-war transitions from 1918 and 1945 onwards, with critical, sometimes even unstable, material and political infrastructures, consolidated a decidedly gender-related notion of trauma. This monopoly of trauma diagnoses, reserved for male patients, hence even resulted in misogyny towards institutionalized women, especially when they were refugees or displaced persons. As this study attempts to show, the mapping of mental illness or normality was heavily determined by sex, class, or ethnic background and in most instances served as an administrative tool for socio-political ends. The research for this contribution is based on archival work conducted for an ERC Advanced Grant, entitled “EIRENE Post-War Transitions in Gendered Perspective: The Case of the North-Eastern Adriatic Region.”

Material Shifts

Theorizing Endometriosis, Embodiment, and Experimental Art


A body changed by illness demands new narrative modes. In this article, I use autotheory to foreground my experience of struggling with symptoms of endometriosis. I enter into conversation with feminist disability scholars who have theorized chronic illness and endometriosis as a disability, and think through some of the socio-economic effects of doing so, particularly within academia. I examine how an experimental arts-based practice can be a method of narrating chronic illness. Situated within a disability art aesthetic, I use textiles to represent a chronic pain episode. These images argue for the inherent worthiness of non-normative female embodiment.

Blogging to Let Go

Life Writing, Maternal Cancer, and Death


Illness memoirs gained popularity in the last decades of the 20th century. From the early 21st century, illness narratives proliferate online. This article examines illness life writing and near-death narratives by mothers living with stage IV cancer. I read two blogs, Suspicious Country by Nina Riggs and Julie Yip-Williams: My Cancer Fighting Journey by Julie Yip-Williams, and their published memoirs. I draw from life writing studies, motherhood studies, queer death studies, and narrative medicine, analyzing the overlap of mothering and illness in the contexts of life writing and medicine. Working with Eve Sedgwick’s reparative practice, I suggest that while illness, dying, and mothering appear incompatible at first, narrating from this position holds the possibility of sustenance and the potential for redefining how stories of ill and dying mothers are told. The blogs and memoirs are counter-narratives to the healing imperatives and closure demanded by the normative cancer narrative. They flesh out an approach to living with illness and dying, while writing about it. The article illustrates how illness blogging constructs an entangled story of grief, loss, and joy which becomes an instrument in living with the acute awareness of dying.

“Untenanted by any Tangible Form”

Illness, Minorities, and Narrative Masquerades in Contemporary Pandemic Fiction


In the current Covid-19 crisis, masks have become a ubiquitous sight in social situations. As visual signifiers of both protection and containment, they emblematize the very risk which they serve to prevent. Departing from the multiple functions of the mask in Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Masque of the Red Death” — a story published decades before the emergence of modern virology — this paper reads recent fictionalizations of pandemics as diagnostic tools of larger social, political, and cultural shifts. Taking Poe’s story as a programmatic blueprint, my interest is particularly in the correlation between (narrative) representation and political power in contexts of illness. Given that minorities are often disproportionally affected by, and blamed for, epidem- ics, my analysis targets not only the discursive and semantic strategies of “outbreak narratives” (Priscilla Wald), but the complicity of these strategies in notions of cultural difference. Through the trope of the mask, I argue, the nexus of “the visible and invisible” that Foucault sees at the heart of modern medicine can be reconceptualized along narratological lines. In addition to more detailed analyses of Ling Ma’s Severance (2018) and Lawrence Wright’s The End of October (2020), my reading of pandemic fiction also relies on novels by Michael Crichton, Philip Roth, Louise Erdrich, and Emma Donoghue, among others.

Infectious Diseases in Historical Perspective

French Pox Versus Venereal Syphilis


Medical historiography has tended to almost automatically identify the disease that entered European medical and lay writings at the end of the 15th century as morbus gallicus with the present-day condition known as “venereal syphilis.” This identification, which goes back to the invention, in 1530, of the term syphilis as a synonym for morbus gallicus by Girolamo Fracastoro, has been retained by many 19th– and 20th-century medical historians, and there are many still today who, in looking at past medical and lay descriptions of that condition, have systematically practiced retrospective diagnosis of syphilis. In this work, I will claim that identifying today’s “venereal syphilis” with the morbus gallicus of the past is problematic because these labels involve diseases related to radically different medical frameworks namely, the Hippocratic Galenic humoral paradigm and the bacteriological one that are incommensurable with each other. Subsequently, I claim that, because of the lack of use of the term syphilis until the 19th century, Fracastoro cannot be considered but a historiographic artifact in the history of “venereal syphilis.”

The Illness of Narrative

Reframing the Question of Limits


This paper uses Dostoevsky’s Notes from the Underground as the starting point for a critique of the assumption that engaging with narratives enhances well-being. While the ‘limits of narrative’ have long been an object of critique by scholars in the medical humanities, the question of limits has been posed primarily in terms of whether narrativity can be considered an anthropological universal, and in terms of what (or whom) a privileging of narrativity might exclude. Through Dostoevsky, we reframe this problem by asking whether the construction of selves through narrative can and should be regarded as a ‘healthy’ norm, even for those in whom this activity appears to come naturally. Dostoevsky identified a dark side to the ‘heightened consciousness’ associated with supposedly enlightened modern individuals. He critiques a tendency towards ever increasing abstraction from concrete existence and embodies this critique in the character of the “underground man,” a man plagued by sickness and distress, partly because he can only conduct his life on the basis of what he has read. The paper urges those working in the medical humanities today to formulate an adequate response to the paradoxes exhibited in Dostoevsky’s great novel.