Project Narrative


by Evan Chaloupka


In what way is narrative central to the endeavor of medicine? How do illness and disability disrupt narrative convention and theory? How can partnerships between the humanities and medicine be fostered? These questions were at the core of this year’s Project Narrative Summer Institute on narrative medicine at The Ohio State University.

The strength of the institute was the diversity of its participants—doctors, graduate students, and professors who hailed from Ohio to Belgium—and the collective perspective of the group offered an encouraging reminder that the practices of English studies are, in fact, called upon in medical practice. Conversations with my peers made the biggest impressions:

You want to teach narrative theory to 19- and 20-year-old pre-meds? That doesn’t seem to be too bad. You could be trying to build narrative competencies with medical residents over the course of four hour-long workshops spread throughout the year. That’s a real tough task. College sophomores, after all, haven’t been steeped in three years of medical school training. Over thirty class sessions with them in one semester? That’s the dream.

So I learned from Kathy Davidson, Chief of Palliative Care at the Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center. These types of conversations were typical, albeit less streamlined, during my time at the Project Narrative Summer Institute. An eclectic set of texts grounded discussion. Judith Vanistendael’s moody water colors in When David Lost His Voice, for example, were followed by Ian McEwan’s cerebral story of Henry Perowne in Saturday. Primary works were balanced by traditional narrative theory. A week and a half of reading culminated with a lecture and workshop delivered by Rita Charon, one of the field’s luminaries and the Director of the Narrative Medicine Program at Columbia University.

I admire Rita as a writer, and Narrative Medicine seemed all the more cogent after my peers and I worked through useful, but demanding, selections from Genette’s Narrative Discourse. But I was most impressed by her ability to situate narrative study in the center of general and pre-med undergraduate curriculum. During the workshop, we simulated an activity Rita frequently did in her own classes. The theme of the activity was retelling: specifically, what it’s like to hear your own story retold.

Working in pairs, one individual told a personal illness story, and the other listened. Then, the listener wrote his or her own version of this story, and allowed the teller to read it. The activity is a useful one for medical students, practitioners, and yes, English scholars because of the way it not only illuminates the structural decisions of retelling, but also the ethics behind these choices. How do we honor stories of illness and disability? How does one listen knowing that he or she will soon be narrating? Can the reteller illuminate some feature of the illness or disability narrative that the original speaker might appreciate? As anyone familiar with Charon’s work will recognize, this is an activity centered on bridging divides. But as the group quickly realized, there was just as much to learn about how co-produced stories of illness could create and develop a mutual understanding of sickness and health.

On the final day, after participant presentations had wrapped up, one of my peers asked Jim Phelan, director of the institute, how to introduce the field to newcomers, specifically administrators who might approve or deny undergraduate courses. Jim replied, “Tell them you’re getting undergraduates to”—he paused— “ya know, think about this stuff.”  We laughed. Two weeks had left us a little weary, and no one expected an exceptionally detailed answer. But his comment was apt. “This stuff”— narrative along with its practical, ethical, and aesthetic dimensions—emerges in all genres and professional contexts, and without the help of narrative medicine, the humanist and doctor remain blissfully unaware of essential features of illness and care-taking. Teaching students in ways that allow them to be able to better see and think about “this stuff” is an endeavor worth making.