Whose Story Is It Anyway?: Constructing the Stories and Pathology of Madness/Mental Illness in the Contemporary U.S.
Caughey, John L
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Personal stories are always told in the context of broader cultural narratives. Thus, in the contemporary U.S., stories of personal experience of illness and disability are usually informed by Western notions of health and illness, and a binary classification system of normative/non-normative bodies and behaviors. The emerging field of disability studies represents a socially progressive attempt to interrogate and reconfigure discourses that pathologize and medicalize non-normative bodies, challenging medical discourses with an alternate framework of evidence that emphasizes the personal experiences of individuals who have experienced disability or illness and who conceive of these experiences in different ways. <italic>Whose Story Is It Anyway?</italic> is an interdisciplinary examination of how the cultural authority of medicine compresses a range of individual experiences into narrow, standardized narratives of the experience of depression, for instance, or other phenomena classified as illness. Specifically, my study makes a three-part argument: first, that biological psychiatry has eclipsed psychoanalysis and that medical definitions of mental illness have become the culturally dominant way of determining what kinds of physical or psychological phenomena are classified as bad, e.g., pathological. Second, these definitions then inform and shape stories of personal experience with such phenomena, enough so that standard narrative formats emerge for describing "individual" experiences of both physical disability and madness/mental illness. The personal stories of madness/mental illness then become, in essence, universalized narratives of illness and recovery that reinforce notions of pathology. Third, this standardization of the personal story often aligns with medical narratives in a way that reflects the storytellers' disempowered position in the medical industry, in that telling the "right" story positions them to receive the benefits of working within the medical system, and telling the "wrong" story becomes an act of political activism. Such <italic>de facto</italic> coercion has substantial implications for intellectual projects, such as disability studies, that rely heavily on the articulation of personal experience as evidence for the need for change. Finally, this study argues for a re-examination of experience-based, identity-focused activism, and for an invigorated humanities project in science studies.