As I was writing my MFA thesis this summer, I thought daily about narrative. After all, both medicine and memoir are about stories—ours, our patients—and my MFA has been about learning how to tell stories well. Stories should move us forward; occasionally they hold us back. Sometimes the true meaning of stories takes years to uncover.
I was focused on all the meta-narratives involving Ferguson, Missouri, and the death of Robin Williams, and on how we create stories to protect our beliefs, stories that prevent us from seeing clearly the contradictions and complexity of human nature. People are uncomfortable with those events and so make up a story line in which they feel safe. The “good boy, racist police, marijuana-smoking thug,” and the “suicide is selfish, he had everything” memes bounce around in my head like bingo balls. They are all born from discomfort with the ambiguity of our world, and are both true and untrue.
Reading Thomas Gibbs’ “The Paint Blistered Doll” in the Fall 2013 Intima reminded me of the power of stories we tell, especially when we are anxious or afraid. In his essay, Gibbs finds himself in an emotionally charged situation and he inexplicably starts off on a story about a show he saw on the Nature Channel about a radioactive spill. This narrative touched his patient in an unexpected way, since she had emigrated from the affected town. Why did he choose that particular tale? Did the patient’s Eastern European accent remind him of it, or was he trying to compliment her resiliency after miscarriages? We see the impact of the story on the patient, but not on the author and that’s the story I’d like to hear.
In my own essay, “D/D,” I read my dying mother a story about a man she didn’t know, basketball star Charles Barkley, because I couldn’t just sit there and watch her stop breathing. It was only later while writing the piece I saw choosing that article out of many said something powerful about our relationship.
I’m wondering about these kinds of stories, ones we tell while uncomfortable: the fairytale I told while reducing a nursemaid’s elbow, the NFL draft predictions I gave while doing a thoracentesis. There is meta-meaning in them often ignored, seldom explored; those stories are important, too. I challenge both readers and writers to look more carefully at the stories we tell in our daily lives when we are uncomfortable—they may be the best ones of all.
Maureen Hirthler is a physician and an MFA candidate at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. Her work has appeared in several journals, most recently in the Yale Journal of Medical Humanities and the University of Oklahoma School of Medicine’s Blood and Thunder.
© 2015 Intima: A Journal of Narrative Medicine