Thursday, October 27, 2016

Drew Leder's "The Distressed Body"

Drew Leder has blended an unusual array of interests and accomplishments. He has an M.D. from Yale University School of Medicine, and a Ph.D. in philosophy from the State University of New York at Stony Brook. He is currently a full professor teaching Western and Eastern Philosophy at Loyola College in Maryland.

Leder applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, The Distressed Body: Rethinking Illness, Imprisonment, and Healing, and reported the following:
Bodily pain and distress come in many forms—we've all experienced our share. They can well up from within at times of serious illness and pain. The body can also be subjected to harsh treatment from outside. The medical system is often cold and depersonalized, and much worse are conditions experienced by prisoners in our age of mass incarceration, and by animals trapped in our factory farms. In this book I try to rethink how we create and treat distress, clearing the way for more humane social practices.

I draw on my own training as a philosopher and a physician, my own struggles with chronic pain, and on over twenty years teaching in prison settings. In fact, the book has collaborative authors and conversation partners ranging from an internationally known cardiologist, to a man just released after 33 years in prison. It turns to many different topics: the experience of chronic pain; our cultural fascination with pills, and with organ transplantation; alternative healing practices and settings; the experience of space and time when serving a life-sentence; the historical/philosophical foundations of our cruel "factory farms"; human-animal "shape-shifting" in indigenous cultures, but also in our own world--think Spiderman, or the Denver Broncos; etc., etc.

Page 99 is pretty representative of the first (slightly more than) half of the book that focuses on illness and modern medicine. I here investigate the divergence between the suffering experienced by the sick person, and the depersonalizing gaze and speech characteristic of the modern physician. But let me quote a bit to give you that flavor:
The patient continues to suffer the illness from within, which the doctor objectifies from outside. This divergence has as a positive dimension. The very reason the patient seeks out the physician is for this “different point of view,” more dispassionate and informed than his own. However, this divergence can also widen into an abyss if patient and doctor fail to communicate effectively. This problem can surface from the first moments of the encounter. The doctor strides in, and may seem rushed or inattentive. It is well documented that physicians frequently interrupt patients as they try to tell the story of the illness in order to make history-taking shorter or more efficient.[i] In such conditions the patient may never feel heard.

Such dialogic breakdown can have very practical consequences. The physician who cannot participate in the patient’s interpretive universe may miss crucial features of the case; fail to communicate empathy; squash the larger narrative structure which sustains the patient; or choose a treatment that is inappropriate for the person’s mindset or lifestyle.
Learn more about The Distressed Body at the University of Chicago Press website, and visit Drew Leder's webpage.

--Marshal Zeringue