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First Person Narratives I

09 August 2011

Our Archivist and Education & Outreach Officer contributed a paper to a recent conference held to ‘evaluate the clinical encounter, the relationship between doctor and patient, and the language of illness and pain’. While their paper explored the visual ‘language’ of recovery ‘spoken’ by ‘before’ and ‘after’ photographs of English psychiatric patients in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the conference theme was interpreted in a diversity of ways by various speakers.

First-person written testimony always brings fresh perspective to discussions such as these and there is no narrative more engaging than that of Mabel Z. Cunningham, whose memoir, published posthumously as Jeremiah’s Sister, is so scarce that it appears to remain available only in online excerpts, nowhere in hardcopy. (If anyone can locate a library copy, no doubt Ellen Dwyer of Indiana University-Bloomington, the academic who brought this narrative to the attention of conference-goers, would be delighted to hear of it.)

We have just had our attention drawn to an article in the British Medical Journal which we wish we had known about in time for the conference. In Through the Wasteland, Jackie Hopson and Jeremy Holmes reflect on their respective experiences of a shared clinical encounter. Here a journey from a family home described as ‘a dangerous place to be’ through county asylum admission (‘places of fear, punishment and long incarceration’ but also ‘the only refuges available to many’) and referral to Bethlem Hospital’s Charles Hood Unit (‘an excellent therapeutic community’) to an adulthood of light and shade is carefully and honestly recounted. So is a movement away from therapy that actually serves to reinforce self-hatred and the ‘division of suffering’ between doctor and patient towards a long-term relationship of support in which acknowledgement of vulnerability can become a two-way street. Jackie has kindly written a more detailed account of her stay in the Charles Hood Unit, which will be posted later this month.

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