Monday, January 7, 2013

Wounded storyteller

The symbol of the wounded storyteller is ancient. I’ve just recently launched into a rereading of Homer’s “The Odyssey,” in which Tiresias the seer reveals to Oedipus the true story of whose son he is. Tiresias has been blinded by the gods, and it is this blindness that gives him his narrative power.

And then there's Jacob. The wound that the biblical patriarch suffers to his hip while wrestling with God is part of the story that he tells of that event, and is the price he pays. As Jacob tells his story in the book of Genesis, his wound is evidence of its truth.

In my story, as it’s been told primarily through this blog, it’s melanoma that is my wound, in all its manifestations. It’s what qualifies me as a wounded storyteller. We hear and read the stories of ill people all the time, so mine is simply a variant of what we’ve all become familiar with. When someone suggests to me that I should write a book about my cancer journey I point out the obvious: It's already written; you’re reading it. The distinction is that my story has not yet come to an end.

In his book, “The Wounded Storyteller: Body, Illness and Ethics,” sociologist Arthur Frank describes the value of illness narratives, the stories that people tell about their experience of illness. He writes, “Serious illness is a loss of the destination and map that has previously guided the ill person’s life; ill people have to learn to think differently. They learn by hearing themselves tell their stories, absorbing the reactions of others and experiencing their stories being shared.”

Frank reminds us that in illness narratives, such as The Ogler, stories are told through wounded bodies. Through our stories, the ill create empathetic bonds with our readers, which expand as the stories are retold. Several people who follow this blog regularly have told me that they’ve forwarded a particular post to someone else. Through electronic media, my voice as a storyteller has no practical limits.

In wounded storytelling, the physical act of writing becomes an ethical act. Soren Kierkegaard wrote of the ethical person as editor of his life: to tell one’s life is to assume responsibility for that life. That’s another way of saying what I’ve made the catchphrase of The Ogler: “How do I know what I think until I see what I say?” I write, therefore I am. I strive to make sense of my survival, as I watch others seeking to make sense of theirs. I agree with Frank that the wounded storyteller is trying to survive and to help others survive in a world that does not immediately make sense. In that identity lies both promise and responsibility, calamity and dignity.

After having worked as an editor most of my life, I am now editor of that life. By telling bits and pieces of my story here, I’m able to construct new maps and new perspectives on the world. I tell these stories as their embodiment—not just about the body, but through it. These stories are not so much about me as they are me.

In Frank’s own illness narrative, “At the Will of the Body,” in which he describes his experience with testicular cancer, he defines illness as the experience of living through disease. “If disease talk measures the body, illness talk tells of the fear and frustration of being inside a body that is breaking down. Illness begins where medicine leaves off, where I recognize what is happening to my body is not some set of measures. What happens to my body happens to my life.”

Frank has defined three types of illness storytelling.

1. The first is the restitution narrative or “gee whiz” stories of remarkable recoveries that we see all the time in the media. Here’s a good example that appeared today in The Oregonian. What’s important about this story type is that illness is seen as transitory. In terms of the narrative, “It is a response to an interruption, but the narrative itself is above interruption.’’ It is all about the body returning to its former image of itself, before illness. The illness has been managed. The body is likened to a car that has broken down and has been repaired.

2. The second type is the chaos narrative—chaos being the opposite of restitution. It imagines life never getting better. The person speaks without self-reflection and without narration. It is an anti-narrative.

3. The third type of narrative that Frank describes is the Quest narrative, as told through a body that can communicate an experience. “Quest stories meet suffering head on; they accept illness and seek to use it. Illness is the occasion of a journey that becomes a quest.” Quest narratives talk about what it’s like to be in pain, and share a person’s hopes and fears, his or her sense of the meaning of suffering and the possibility of death. Rather than telling others what they should do in order to return to their former state, quest narratives bear witness of the experience and share wisdom.

Perhaps you can understand from this why I take my blog as seriously as I do. Survival does not include any particular responsibility other than continuing to survive. Bearing witness, on the other hand, assumes a responsibility for telling what happens along the way. A witness offers truths that are generally unrecognized or suppressed. People who tell stories of illness are witnesses, turning illness into moral responsibility.

Part of what makes quest narratives like mine distinct is that they afford the ill person a voice as teller of our stories. In restitution narratives, the active player is the remedy—often either a drug or the physician. Restitution stories are about the triumph of medicine. Some border on being little more than public relations. The quest narrative speaks from the ill person’s perspective and holds chaos at bay. Medicine plays a secondary role in these stories.

One truth that my quest has taught me is that contingency—events that may but are not certain to occur—is the only real certainty. Madeleine L’Engle, writing of the time just after her husband died, expresses this as a spiritual truth. She describes her situation by quoting a bishop saying of his wife’s death, “I have been all the way to the bottom. And it is solid.” The point of suffering from a spiritual perspective is that only the bottom is solid. L’Engle writes of her husband’s illness, “We have had to be open to crisis.” Being open was a source of change and growth for her and her husband as they learned to value contingency, even with its suffering.

I have experienced change and growth in my cancer journey and attempted to communicate some of what I’ve learned. I do so for anyone who reads this, but also for myself. The quest narrative recognizes that the old self must be stripped away to prepare for something new. Whatever that is will eventually be revealed to me, and in good time to you as well.

1 comment:

Nancy said...

Peter, your body may be wounded, but the storyteller in your soul soars higher with each post. I hope your appetite has returned along with your ability to craft thoughtful and informative and amazing prose. Once again, I've been inspired to share your words with yet another friend who is grappling with cancer. Your words will give them comfort and encouragement and help them find their way in their own journey.

It's a page turner. Keep writing. May your personal odyssey have many, many more chapters!