The Wounded Storyteller by Arthur W. Frank

November 7, 2006 at 1:05 pm (health, nonfiction, sociology)

On the third page of the Preface, Frank says flat out that “this is a work of theory.” His aim, as put forth on page 3, is to figure out how we can make “sense of illness stories as being told through the diseased body.” With such an upfront description of what was to follow, I don’t know why I was surprised at finding myself frustrated with the material two chapters in.

 The Wounded Storyteller by Arthur W. FrankAt its core, Frank’s thesis is simple. He wants to convince the reader that the telling of illness stories is a moral act. He claims medical culture acts to silence the ill, and by finding the language with which to convey a story of illness, the storyteller enters into a moral relationship with the person to whom he or she is telling the story. By telling the story, the storyteller not only organizes his or her thoughts and feelings about a body that has become alien, but he or she acts as a witness to his or her own suffering. This testimony charges the listener to take the story and learn from it. Frank claims that a moral listener will hear of another person’s suffering and become mobilized to help others who are suffering. They can help by doing activist work, by telling their own stories, by helping the sick, or by simply listening to more people.

Obviously, the book was clear enough to leave me with a decent understanding of its contents. Even so, while the theory whore in me enjoyed most of the text, there were several aspects of it that kept tripping me up. One was Frank’s tendency to continually repeat the point he was making. He would make one point, than reiterate it in the following paragraph, and then again in the paragraph after that. Now, I can understand the logic in reiterating a point that was made in an early chapter but does not come into play until a later one. In that case a reader may need to be reminded. But considering that most people would not choose a theory book as pleasure reading, I’d think he would imagine his readers intelligent enough not to require the repeated explaining of a point two sentences after it has already been fully explained to them.

Another was his refusal to define words used throughout the text to describe his theory. For example, the term “postmodern” is used liberally yet, on page 4 he writes, “Illness has come to feel different during the last twenty years, and today the sum of those differences can be labeled postmodern. I make no attempt to define postmodernism; the utility of the term lies only in thick descriptions of the feel of the differences.” What? The problem with this is the word postmodern isn’t used solely to describe the narratives he references in later chapters. It is used to describe aspects of his theory and having no definition of the term makes those descriptions sound esoteric and meaningless.

And then there’s his decision to spend an entire chapter describing terms he uses maybe six or seven times throughout the course of the rest of the text, terms that could have been sufficiently described in a single paragraph!

What I’m getting at with all of this is Frank seems to have a skewed sense of what is important to the text and what is not. You need to provide the reader with definitions of otherwise nebulous terms you plan to use repeatedly. But, the reader is not stupid, so you do not need to over explain those definitions.

That aside, Frank has provided us with a fine theoretical framework within which to tell and listen to illness stories. After finishing this book I found myself applying Frank’s theories to other books and stories I was reading. And, though I’m not sure I whole heartedly agree with Frank that storytelling is a moral act, he gave me more than enough good material to chew on and experiment with. If you can get past all the extraneous content, you will probably enjoy this thoughtful book.


  1. W. Klein said,

    Your hyperfocus on form rather than content/message suggests you may never have experienced significant illness.

    • iread said,

      You would be wrong to assume so. I live with a chronic pain disorder that influences every aspect of my life. I gravitated to Frank’s work a couple of years after my diagnosis as I was trying to reconcile the person I was before the disorder with the person I had become in the midst of it.

      As I said, I think Frank provides a fine theoretical lens through which to view the act of telling and listening to illness stories, and the book gave me plenty of ideas to chew on. However, as I mentioned, there were many instances where I felt Frank lost focus and failed to express his ideas as well as he could have. I find his journal articles and conference lectures suffer from the same problem. Frank always starts strong and does a good job explaining his theories, but he tends to wander when citing examples. I think he gets hung up on definitions and thoughts that are not directly related to the point he is trying to get across, and that detracts from his message.

      • J said,

        There’s a heck of difference between a life-threatening illness (e.g. cancer, heart disease) and chronic pain. Neither are a nice experience, but I’d trade you cancer for chronic pain anyday. J.

        • iread said,

          I wasn’t aware this was a contest to decide who suffers the most.

  2. IReadToo said,

    hello, IREAD. I like your precis of Rank’s book. I like Rank’s thesis, as you describe it. My interest, at present, is in a broader notion of illness: in general, the idea that writing and story-telling comes from some woundedness; and specifically, an idea that much which is established in the canon of writing from men might come from a wound inflicted by a mother.

    I perceive aversion, ambivalence, furtiveness, loathing and puritanical judgmentalism towards the feminine as conflictual tensions and motives which have prompted a wide range of work by many very clever men. Such illnesses infect the depicted relationships their protagonists create with consenting adult women. Robin Jenkins is a current interest. Aldous Huxley, Thomas Hardy, Shakespeare (esp. the sonnets). I perceive such conflicts in myself, and seek therapy to attempt to deal with it. I try to avoid “writing it out”, as this seems also to have moral implications: it recreates illness, perhaps?

    I do not know where this interest may take me. Gender studies & sexual politics, rather than literature or psychology, perhaps?

    Could it be that such conflictual tensions are (in Rank’s term) illnesses? That the telling of such stories SHOULD PROPERLY be regarded as the same kind of moral act as Rank asserts? That Tess of the D’urbervilles, who must be endlessly punished by her creator, exists not because she is an archetype, but because Hardy specifically needs her? or the “bitches” whom Huxley’s earlier protagonists desire and loathe and fear

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