A New Perspective at the Intersection of Medicine & Literature

By Victor S. Wang (NHS’15, M’19)

Two years ago I joined the new Literature and Medicine longitudinal track at the School of Medicine. Led by Dr. Daniel Marchalik and Dr. Dennis Murphy, the group comes together monthly to discuss non-medical narratives and explore real-life implications of the readings.

Topics have ranged from animal research to life under a totalitarian regime. Literature encourages us to explore possibilities in a safe and open space. In recognizing boundaries of our comfort zones, we become more receptive to the perspectives of others.

Earlier this year, we read two works exploring mental illness. In Han Kang’s The Vegetarian and Jesse Ball’s A Cure for Suicide, our class wanted to put initial impressions into neat and familiar categories. By recognizing our inherent biases, we worked to counter ideas we had been anchored to, and understand what once was incomprehensible. We took part in exercises that humanized the characters and added value to their stories.

Kang presents the story of Yeong-hye, a middle-aged South Korean woman attempting to defy prescribed norms by refusing to eat meat. After witnessing repeated injuries against Yeonghye— including social ridicule, domestic violence, sexual assault, and forced treatments—we asked whether the life-sustaining nutritional support she was administered ultimately did more harm than good. We acknowledged that her diagnoses of anorexia nervosa and schizophrenia limited her capacity to refuse care. However, given the traumatic nature of Yeong-hye’s childhood, we considered the counterpoint: whether these clinical measures drove her further from society. In her final moments of clarity, Yeong-hye poses a profound question to her sister: “Is it such a bad thing to die?”

Yeong-hye’s example demonstrates one aspect of the human condition: suffering. But the specific nature of her suffering is tied to her history of physical and emotional abuse, the futility of her situation, and the gradual loss of her freedom. I tend to attribute the problem of suffering to an individual’s inability to achieve his or her full potential. In discussing the condition of this woman abandoned by society, my classmates and I become an outlet for her voice, drawing into question the practices that contributed to her situation.

In A Cure for Suicide, the narrator (called the “claimant”) chooses to undergo a pharmacologic regimen that results in dulled mental and emotional faculties. With memories erased and mind numbed, he lives under constant monitoring by his “examiner” who is tasked with educating the claimant on all aspects necessary to function, from basic object identification to complex interpersonal communication skills.

When an impulsive, short-lived love story precipitates his desire to end his life, we questioned the claimant’s intent and the author’s purpose. Some suggested there need not be a definitive, logical rationale for wanting to end one’s life. Others suggested that the claimant’s actions showed that all humans suffer. The plethora of possible explanations for his grief directed us to critique the therapist administering the cure.

The claimant’s complete dependence on his examiner makes it unlikely that he would re-enter society-at-large, calling into question the true rationale behind the cure. Is it a cure or simply another form of suicide? To better understand the perspective of the suicidal patient, we discussed a hypothetical question: If a loved one wanted to commit suicide, would we choose for him/her to undergo this treatment? What is the value of physical life in the absence of an emotional one?

The stories offered ways to see how society isolates and silences voices to resolve the problem of mental illness. This challenged our understanding of mental illness and patient autonomy—and showed us the value of caring for the whole person.

For more information about the Literature and Medicine Track, including syllabi and recommended reading, visit som.georgetown.edu/academics/lamt.