Illness as Fiction on the Imperfect Cognitions Blog

I was recently interviewed by Professor Lisa Bortolotti for her research blog Imperfect Cognitions: Lisa leads a research team working on delusional beliefs, distorted memories, confabulatory explanations, unrealistically optimistic predictions, and implicit biases — all topics that potentially overlap with fake illness narratives. You can read my interview here: I found the questions very inspiring, especially the (difficult!) one on the possible benefits of false accounts of illness. What do you think?

Welcome!

This is the blog of my new research project “Illness as Fiction: Textual Afflictions in Print and Online.” I will post here news, workshop summaries, and reflections as the project develops. I am currently finalizing the details of our first workshop “Texts as Symptoms”, which will take place here at the University of Bristol on 9th July 2018 – more details soon!

Code Michigan (by Betsy Weber CC BY 2.0)

In the meantime, let me give you a bit of background information. I got the first idea for this project, after reading this fascinating article by Rachel Monroe in The Guardian back in 2016: I learned a lot about Munchausen by Internet and I couldn’t but think that these accounts constituted an extreme version of the illness narratives I analyse in my job as a Lecturer in Medical Humanities. “Illness narrative” is a blurry definition: according to some scholars, for example Ann Jurecic, it includes all stories of illness and disability, whether biographical or fictional; others, like Anne Hawkins, prefer “pathography” to describe autobiographical accounts of illness. Munchausen by Internet complicates all this: what we read in blogposts or forum comments by a factitious patient is yes, a fiction, but it is also the textual manifestation of their psychiatric condition. Of course, Munchausen syndrome is not the only reason behind the publication of fake illness narratives. There might be marketing strategies at play, as it was maybe the case with James Frey’s best-selling A Million Little Pieces, perceived by many, and most notably by Oprah Winfrey, as an inspiring memoir of recovery from alcohol and drug addiction, and later revealed to be only partially truthful.

However, as a literary scholar, I am less interested in the “why” and more in the “how”: how do these authors manage to write convincing stories of illness or health-related trauma? Which stylistic devices do you they use to sound authoritative? And we, as readers, which features do we expect to find in plausible stories of ill health (e.g. detailed accounts of bodily sensations, alternative cures for untreatable diseases, etc.)? Follow this blog over the next months to find out more!