Trauma and Medical Discourse- by Tanis MacDonald

What a thought-provoking and terrific panel this was. Many thanks to Mary Mahoney, Melissa Jacques, and Theresa Tinkle for their papers and for a far-ranging discussion in the Q&A, with a provocative question from Melissa about how we manage affect in the classroom, and for what we wish when we do so.  

To get to that conversation, we were primed by three excellent papers. Mary Mahoney discussed bibliotherapy as a history and as a practice, and described the methodology of her “Books as Medicine” course in which the practice of reading books as prescriptions leads into a series of writing prompts for reflecting on the reading and eventually into life writing. Mahoney noted that this model is very adaptive to specific communities, and that as an ungraded course, she and the group/community will co-curate the book choices. I thought, as I often do, about the small-scale bibliotherapy that a course offers, in which instructors may try to “predict and prescribe” to as-yet-unseen students by choosing course texts. Mahoney also discussed the intriguing idea that the history of bibilotherapy is a “history of failure,” in that it is very difficult to “prescribe” a book broadly as therapeutic to a large number of a people influenced negatively by an event or disaster: i.e. it’s hard to predict a “broadly-prescribed book” for individual needs. Community co-curation is a good solution for some of those problems.

Melissa Jacques’ discussion of the use of images in multi-modal texts to disrupt and sometimes refuse the representations of trauma worked closely with ideas of time and space in narrative form. Her quotation of Jane Allison’s statement from Meander, Spiral, Explode has put that book on my reading list. Here it is: reading leaves “a numinous shape of the path you’ve travelled” as you’ve read. Oh yes! The graphic narratives at which Jacques looked, Roz Chast’s Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? (which I’ve read) and Anders Nilsen’s Don’t Go Where I Can’t Follow (which I haven’t, but now really want to), both end with visual representations of the dying and then dead body of partners or parents, and I loved Jacques’ reference to Eve Sedgwick’s work in Touching Feeling on the relationship of space to affect, and will keep thinking about Jill Bennett’s note that images of trauma are “transactive rather than communicative.”

Theresa Tinkle discussed the pedagogy of her undergraduate course “Mental Memoirs,” in which she teaches several memoirs written by people with experiences in the mental health system, and uses the class to discuss the need for better understanding of neurodiversity via the texts and alongside students’ own writing about mental health issues in their lives. Tinkle shared her text choices with us, and noted that the students grew very supportive of each other emotionally while being intellectual independent with their reactions to the texts. Her most recommended text for us all: Susanne Antonetta’s A Mind Apart: Travels in a Neurodiverse world. The creation of a “brave space” in this classroom was sparked by the intellectual framework of disability theory and history of life writing with which the instructor framed the course, and also, importantly, by the students’ craving for neurodiverse voices beyond the medical model.

This conference has really excelled at seeding Q and As that are productive discussions about thorny questions about bravery, risk, the place of empathy in life writing as a pedagogical stream and as a creative practice, and the ethics of courage in the classroom. This panel was no exception: my brain was buzzing by the end of this panel.

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