Shame, stigma and the shadows of contested, ‘unexplained’ illness
Ms Katharine ChestonZoom
According to phenomenological theory, the ill body loses its healthy transparency as it is suddenly forced to the centre of our conscious awareness (Carel 2016, Sartre 2003, Leder 1990). But what happens in cases of contested or ‘medically unexplained’ illness: when severe symptoms render the body excruciatingly visible, yet its disease remains invisible to presently-available medical imaging? In this paper I will examine three contemporary autobiographical texts authored by women living with a range of contested conditions: Dorothy Wall’s Encounters with the Invisible (2005), Anna Lyndsey’s Girl in the Dark (2015), and Julie Rehmeyer’s Through the Shadowlands (2017). Through a detailed analysis of metaphors of light, dark and shadow – evident from even the briefest glance at their titles – I will outline how contested conditions entail a unique entanglement of somatic and social suffering. I will propose that, for those living with contested illness, the body might be more pertinently understood, through phenomenological theory, as translucent, and I will explore how this translucency – in which the embodied subject is seen through their unexplained symptoms – can prompt painful experiences of shame and stigma. Ultimately, I hope to show how critical medical humanities methodologies can best illuminate the realities of these (in)visible experiences.