Wednesday, March 12, 2014

My Favorite Book About Illness: ILLNESS AS METAPHOR by Susan Sontag

In 1978 Susan Sontag wrote ILLNESS AS METAPHOR.  Two decades later she wrote AIDS AND ITS METAPHORS and the two are now published together.

At the very bottom of my blog is a quote from Ms. Sontag:
"Illness is the night-side of life, a more onerous citizenship.  Everyone who is born holds dual citizenship, in the kingdom of the well and in the kingdom of the sick.  Although we prefer to use only the good passport, sooner or later each of us is obliged, at least for a spell, to identify ourselves as citizens of that other place."

Writing these books was an act of courage from Ms. Sontag, and reading them was an act of illumination for me.

From her website:
'Sontag shows how the metaphors and myths surrounding certain illnesses, especially cancer, add greatly to the suffering of patients and often inhibit them from seeking proper treatment. By demystifying the fantasies surrounding cancer, Sontag shows cancer for what it is -- just a disease. Cancer, she argues, is not a curse, not a punishment, certainly not an embarrassment and, it is highly curable, if good treatment is followed."

Also from her website:
"Susan Sontag's Illness as Metaphor was the first to point out the accusatory side of the metaphors of empowerment that seek to enlist the patient's will to resist disease. It is largely as a result of her work that the how-to health books avoid the blame-ridden term 'cancer personality' and speak more soothingly of 'disease-producing lifestyles.' . . . Sontag's new book AIDS and Its Metaphors extends her critique of cancer metaphors to the metaphors of dread surrounding the AIDS virus. Taken together, the two essays are an exemplary demonstration of the power of the intellect in the face of the lethal metaphors of fear." —Michael Ignatieff, The New Republic

I'd always believed in the power of words -- the ones spoken and the ones left unspoken.  Ms. Sontag shows how the metaphors associated with illness tended to blame the victim and provoke them into feeling self-blame and shame.

Having read her work long before I became ill with a chronic pain condition helped me hold my illness in a neutral way.  I never wailed, "What did I do to deserve this?" or "Why me?"  Instead I asked, "What can I learn from being in this state?"  and "What do I need to do to get better?"

I believe her worked helped me be more of an activist around my illness for myself, and on behalf of others who also have that passport to the kingdom of the sick.

What's your favorite book about illness?

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