Crossroads: Literature and Healing in the Classroom


 

 

Where is the intersection between literature and healing? Between narrative and
neuroscience? Between writing and life? These are not, of course, new questions. For
me, they recur at the uneasy end of every semester, before the curtain falls on another
year. It is a little like tracing the boundary of self, like scrying a mirror for distinctions
between mind and matter. What fearful, fitful relations exist between these sister terms?

I spend much of my research life chasing them down: unearthing the history of medical
devices, deciphering the rhetoric of 18th century medicine and pedagogy and exploring
the performance of neurochemical disturbance in Gothic fiction. Given my position as
an English professor and as the managing editor of a medical anthropology journal,
this is not particularly surprising. It is not, however, my research that returns me bi-annually to the crossroads of medical humanities. It is my teaching. And I have my
students to thank.

Inspired by research completed in 2009, the class titled Monsters, Madness and Mental
Disruption
introduces students to Gothic novels and to Victorian psychology. In the
course of a semester, we examine the relationship between early gothic tradition,
psychological disturbance, and our own continuing interest in a genre that asks us to
suspend disbelief and join in various dislocations, disruptions, and delusions of the
mind. The connection between a class like this and questions about medical humanities
is, perhaps, obvious. However, the full significance of these crossroads didn’t strike me
until I taught a very different kind of course: Introduction to Creative Writing. We are
narrative creatures, after all, and narrative is often the vehicle by which new concepts
are brought forward with clearest expression. It is something we can analyze by looking
at great authors . . . but it is also something we can practice by being authors ourselves.
And this, I think, is a lesson worth learning.

There is a common anecdote among literary scholars about the contributions of
brothers Henry and William James, and I often share it with my students. William was
the celebrated author of Principles of Psychology (1890) and is often described as a
thinker between disciplines at a time when psychology and philosophy were not clearly
differentiated. Henry James, by contrast, is best known for novels like Portrait of a
Lady
and Turn of the Screw. Claimed by both American and British literary canons,
Henry is now more widely read than his brother—a reversal of their original fortunes.
The jest is not in regard to their posthumous popularity, however. Rather, it is the ironic
understanding that Henry was the better psychologist—and William the better writer. In
the Gothic class, we discuss how omniscient narrators reveal the internal landscape and
provide the stage on which psychological and neurochemical narratives are performed.
Psychologists, on the other hand, provide terminology—the handles later used not
only by practitioners but by authors and critics. It is, and always has been, a reciprocal
relationship.

What the Gothic course provided was the context of this association—the backstory, if
you will. Turn of the Screw was the first text we tackled, and for many it seemed just
a “failed” ghost story. The protagonist (a governess) may or may not see ghosts; the
children in her care may or may not be threatened by spirits. We are never sure, and
the tale ends not with a satisfying dénouement, but with the uncanny and unexplained
death of the boy, Miles, in the governess’s arms—and potentially at her hands. There
were many rumbles of frustration when we discussed it as a group: it has no meaning—
it tells us nothing
. That is, we didn’t seem to know the “real” story. However, after
reading more of the period’s psychological treatises (including those of the author’s
brother), the students took a different view. The text fails to reveal its meaning—and
that tells us everything. Henry James created a tale that couldn’t be simply unraveled, a
complex and unsettling narrative of potential mental disruption and/or repression (and,
in fact, the first Freudian reading of Turn of the Screw was by Edna Kenton in 1924, less
than 30 years after it was written).[i] More interesting still, a number of students found
the story more frightening in this light; it revealed something that touched their own
experiences nearly. Is fear real? What makes it real? And, in the end, what does real
really mean? Gothic literature lends itself to such inquiry partly because of its subversive
nature, its ability to push and question boundaries.

A brief review of texts published in the last five years helps to reveal this—from George
Haggerty’s Mothers and Other Lovers: Gothic Fiction and the Erotics of Loss to Andrew
Smith and William Hughes’ Queering the Gothic. Alison Holland’s article “Identity in
Crisis: The Gothic Textual Space in Beauvoir’s ‘L’Invitée’” suggests that the “Gothic
textual universe” provides space to confront both “pain and the dissolution of self.”[ii]
I made a similar argument in my work on Ann Radcliffe’s Mysteries of Udolpho. In
the text, characters experience déjà vu, but it is also replicated at the narrative level—
that is, the “disruption of continuity that forms (and informs) the threat to identity […]
underlies the power of the Gothic.”[iii] But for my students, the disruption of identity
also served as a means of expressing identity, or those fragments of identity that did
not fit into traditional or accepted narratives. The written narrative provided a staging
ground, and I began to see the power of creative effort. The class became not only—and
perhaps not primarily—about assessing and judging fiction from a critical perspective,
but rather as a springboard to students’ own written endeavors. Thus, we drew pictures.
We wrote poems. The final projects had a creative component in which students crafted
everything from collage and costume to music video, each expressing the subversive and
representing the psychological, sexual and gender struggles of characters, of authors, of
themselves.

The students had combined “narrative” with “neuroscience” on their own terms—
organically replicating what the authors we studied had done over a hundred years
earlier. This movement inward, this swooping low over the internal landscape, has
become a hallmark of my creative writing classes as well. Only here, we do not begin
with psychology. Rather, we arrive there—sometimes unexpectedly—from a different
quarter. Writing fiction is a very personal endeavor, and writing poetry is something
akin to giving live birth for many. The support network for a class like this is crucial;
we must have trust, we must have coaching, we must have—as Anne Lamott would
suggest—midwives. The students form small, tightly knit groups. They share their
work; they even read out loud, and I have witnessed students deeply moved by these
experiences. As the semester progresses, we leave the safety of metaphor’s ambiguity
and proceed into creative non-fiction. Here, the work is stripped down—but it is
not naked. We spend much of our time talking about the way personal experience is
masked, cloaked by narrative that hides fact to reveal “truth.” The question from the
Gothic class inevitably returns: what is “real experience”? It should not surprise me,
though it still does, how much my students are willing to explore and play with identity
boundaries when writing their own fiction. They push themselves, and they push each
other, and they push me. I dubbed my last class No-Fear Creative Writers. They threw
out whole narrative cycles, incorporated suggested characters, different tones and new
perspectives. They took advice, and they gave advice. I watched them go through the
painful process of revision, and I watched them read triumphantly at the end of the
year—in public. And through it all, I realized what I should have known all along. This
is not just writing. It is therapy. Painful ideas, new identities, fears and faith and disgust
and mirth were all tried on, not just in the shadows of back-corner closets but in front
of peers. That inner struggle for respect made concrete; the long held fear exposed in
blistering light—and there, in that fiction, we all found something “real.”

And so, I end the semester in awe of those I am meant to teach. Where is the
intersection between literature and healing? Everywhere. I am pleased not only to trace
its ghostlike presence in old books—but to be part of it in the glistening, pulsing “real”
all around me. This is literature and healing in the classroom, and perhaps it is more a
well-traveled by-pass than a crossroads, after all.

[i] Heilman, Robert B. “The Freudian Reading of the Turn of the Screw” Modern
Language Notes.
Vol. 62, No. 7 (Nov., 1947): 433.

[ii] Holland, Alison. “Identity in Crisis: The Gothic Textual Space in Beauvoir’s
“L’Invitée” The Modern Language Review , 98.2 (Apr., 2003): 327.

[iii] Schillace, Brandy Lain. “'Temporary Failure of Mind': Déjà vu and Epilepsy in
Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho.” Eighteenth-Century Studies 42.2 (2009): 274.
Project MUSE. Web. 21 Jan. 2011.

A medical humanist, literary scholar and writer of Gothic fiction, Dr. Brandy Schillace spends her time in the mist-shrouded alleyways between medical history and literature. She is the Managing Editor, Culture, Medicine and Psychiatry and has worked as an assistant professor of literature. She also leads interdisciplinary conferences abroad for IDnet and spends a lot of her time in museums and medical libraries. Dr. Schillace writes YA Gothic literature, is a member of the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators, the American Association of the History
of Medicine and the Modern Language Association.


Image by
Mara ~earth light~, courtesy of Creative Commons license.