The poetics of the body

Rachel Baer
Susquehanna University, Selinsgrove, Pennsylvania, United States (Spring 2015)

Body Stories by Julia K. De Pree

Pathographies are narratives that describe the intimate emotional effects of illness and disability. Body Story, a creative work in which Julia K. De Pree shares her experience with anorexia, exemplifies this type of writing. According to the National Institute of Mental Health and the National Eating Disorders Association, anorexia is an eating disorder characterized by a distorted body image and obsession with weight, resulting in a severe restriction of food intake that in serious cases can cause emaciation, organ damage, and death.1 De Pree uses her pathography to recount her struggle with anorexia, but her book is not conventional in purpose or style. In Body Story the poetics of illness influence the story’s objective, impact the narrative structure, and present the body as a metaphor for life.

According to G. Thomas Couser, the poetics of illness are “the questions [pathographies] raise as narratives.” For example, the author’s ability to write about disease, reason for doing so, and the literary methods used to accomplish this purpose may be investigated.2 Couser notes that the type of narrative appropriate for storytelling often depends on the nature of the illness being depicted. A less severe, temporary illness may function in a pathography as “an interruption of life rather than an integral part of it.”3 On the other hand, Couser suggests “that prolonged, serious, or chronic illnesses and disabilities may ultimately yield more complex and multidimensional narratives…because lasting dysfunction has to be lived with for some time.”4 In consideration of such cases in which illness and life are so closely associated, Couser contends that pathographies can represent life-writing. Couser defines works of life-writing as “autobiography, biography, memoir, and diary,” and claims that “[f]ull life-writing is facilitated, authorized, or even required when one assumes that what happens to one’s body happens to one’s life.”5Thus, the poetics of illness are the guiding factors that control an illness narrative’s structure. In this role, they closely influence the purpose and methods of storytelling and describe how illness impacts the author’s life.

In consideration of Couser’s question regarding “how…illness and disability…get written at all,” De Pree is able to write her story because it gives her a comfortable outlet to share her feelings.6 As De Pree describes her experience, she sometimes includes passages in which she specifically addresses readers, such as one in which she remarks “I feel less lonely writing this to you.”7 Comments like these create an interesting dynamic in Body Story in which readers serve as patient listeners to De Pree as she recounts her experience with anorexia. Sharing about her anorexia was a way for De Pree to cope with the isolation she felt because of the disease. De Pree’s purpose was not to use her account to help others, but for her readers’ silent attention to her story to help her feel a sense of community. De Pree also references her motivation for writing her pathography when she mentions taking Zoloft for her condition, but stresses that sharing her struggle with her illness is more helpful to her recovery than medication is.8 Although medication helped De Pree deal with the emotional stress of her illness, this impersonal medical remedy was ultimately not effective enough. Instead, De Pree identified storytelling as more therapeutic to her than psychiatric medicine, and this inspired her to express her feelings through writing. Thus, in answer to Couser’s question about the purpose of illness narratives, the poetics of illness in Body Story reveal De Pree’s intention to tell a story that will help herself rather than the reader.

While a story’s purpose is an essential component of the poetics of illness, so is structuring the narrative in a way that achieves this purpose. Couser underscores this concept by questioning “how…one make[s] a coherent story out of bodily dysfunction.”9 Having revealed the purpose of her story, De Pree answered this next question of Couser’s by constructing her work in a way that best represented her illness. De Pree’s choices about the narrative structure of the book create a visual portrayal of her anorexia that helps to make an articulate story. For example, De Pree comments that poetry is the best way to describe anorexia because it limits the author, and anorexia is similarly a disease of restriction.10 Though Body Story is not a poem, De Pree formed her story in short, choppy paragraphs that create a similar sense of sparseness on the book’s pages. As a result of this technique, De Pree’s tale was restricted to only the most important points, mirroring how anorexics consume only what is necessary to survive. This technique likely helped De Pree overcome her illness through learning how to limit her words rather than her food intake. Furthermore, De Pree puts a blank space between paragraphs, explaining that “[t]he silent spaces interspersed in this writing echo the remote places in my mind, the inscription of my solitude, its blind center.”11 While De Pree’s purposefully concise writing mirrored the physical nature of her anorexia, the spaces created empty spots without words to produce a sense of quiet. This served as a representation of the intense emotional impact of anorexia, which had rendered De Pree silent. Using spaces could have allowed De Pree to cope with this isolation by symbolically representing it rather than allowing it to remain in her mind.  Larger narrative structure thus builds De Pree’s story in a powerful and effective way while also helping her deal with the physical and emotional scars of her illness.

Since De Pree is finally able to tell her story through writing and uses literary techniques throughout her account to describe her experience effectively, her pathography may also be considered life-writing: that is, De Pree’s entire life is defined by her illness. Body Story thus fits into Couser’s idea of using one’s illness to write one’s life.12 Body Story’s status as a form of life-writing rather than just a simple account of illness is evident in how De Pree envisions her life based upon the health of her body as she ages and how her movement from place to place impacts her anorexia. The entire book is organized around De Pree’s perceptions of her body at different stages in her life, with chapters documenting her body as a girl, sexually innocent teenager, starving young woman, wife, mother, and recovering individual.13 Body image, which figures heavily into anorexia, was also used by De Pree as a metaphor to describe her entire life’s progression. This marked the body as an indispensable element of De Pree’s story. By visualizing her body as something she had struggled to understand her entire life, De Pree was able to experience the comfort of more closely understanding the origins of her anorexia. Furthermore, by discussing locations under chapter subheadings, De Pree also pays attention to how her body is affected by place. For example, De Pree notes how moving to Decatur, Georgia, to begin a job as an assistant professor at Agnes Scott College resulted in a relapse of her illness because of the stress of her new position.14 The fact that De Pree described her illness in this way shows that anorexia not only affected her in her childhood home in Ohio, but also in the other places she lived thereafter. Stages in De Pree’s life where she experienced relapses in anorexia could effectively be explained by changes in location. Place thus served as another way through which De Pree could understand her illness as a lifelong struggle. Through this symbolic use of the body, De Pree was able to organize her story according to a larger theme and use this theme as an explanatory model to help her comprehend her struggle with anorexia.

In Body Story, the poetics of illness can be seen in the purpose behind the story, within the narrative structure, and in the use of the body as a metaphor. De Pree’s motivations for writing the book emerge through her direct comments on the subject, revealing the therapeutic purpose behind writing a narrative about her illness. In order to effectively accomplish this goal, the larger parts of the narrative structure serve to mirror anorexia. The freedom that De Pree had in constructing her narrative to depict anorexia in a way familiar to her moreover helped her to better understand and overcome her illness. The fundamental elements of purpose and structure combined to result in De Pree’s use of the body as a metaphor for her life, which is visible in the organizational structure of the chapters. This technique marks Body Story as a form of life-writing, which allowed De Pree to understand her illness in a larger way and take greater control over it. Ultimately, Body Story’s function as a piece of life-writing highlights the human body’s role as a fundamental component of personal identity.

Notes

  1. National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA), “Anorexia Nervosa: National Eating Disorders Association,” National Eating Disorders Association, accessed April 23, 2014, http://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/anorexia-nervosa; National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), “NIMH: Eating Disorders,” National Institutes of Health, last modified April 23, 2014, http://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/publications/eating-disorders/index.shtml.
  2. G. Thomas Couser, Recovering Bodies: Illness, Disability, and Life Writing (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1997), 13-14.
  3. Ibid., 6.
  4. Ibid., 12.
  5. Ibid., 13-14.
  6. Ibid., 14.
  7. Julia K. De Pree, Body Story (Athens: Ohio University Press, 2004), 4.
  8. Ibid., 6.
  9. Couser, Recovering Bodies, 14.
  10. De Pree, Body Story, 51-52.
  11. Ibid., 5.
  12. Couser, Recovering Bodies, 14.
  13. De Pree, Body Story, Contents.
  14. Ibid., 54-55.

References

  1. Couser, G. Thomas. Recovering Bodies: Illness, Disability, and Life Writing. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1997.
  2. De Pree, Julia K. Body Story. Athens: Ohio University Press, 2004.
  3. National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA). “Anorexia Nervosa: National Eating Disorders Association.” National Eating Disorders Association. Accessed April 23, 2014. http://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/anorexia-nervosa.
  4. National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH). “NIMH: Eating Disorders.” National Institutes of Health. Last modified 2014. http://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/publications/eating-disorders/index.shtml.

RACHEL BAER is a sophomore history major at Susquehanna University, where she serves as student assistant for the Medical Humanities Initiative. The project is organized by Edward Slavishak and Karol K. Weaver and encourages the analysis and interpretation of medicine through the humanities, arts, and social sciences. Baer presented research on the relationship between female faculty and students at the Williamsport Hospital School of Nursing in Lycoming County, Pennsylvania during the Pennsylvania Historical Association’s 83rd  Annual Meeting in November 2014. Her current research focuses on the experiences of the mentally ill in Snyder County, Pennsylvania during the late nineteenth century.

Follow Hektoen International via social media to see more featured content.