ENG 255G: Brain on Fire: Medical Narratives
The title of this course comes from Susannah Cahalan's medical memoir Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness (2012), a work in which Cahalan explores how a rare type of encephalitis led to periods of madness and delusion before she received diagnosis and treatment. Cahalan's memoir is compelling not only for the medical mystery it presents but also for its storytelling elements. Through readings of medical narratives, including both nonfiction (memoirs, essays) and fiction (short stories, novels), this course will explore narratives of disease and illness. We'll read works by writers who practiced medicine, such as William Carlos Williams; writers who reflected on their own illnesses such as Virginia Woolf and Sylvia Plath; and doctors who became writers, such as Paul Kalanithi in When Breath Becomes Air (2016), which chronicles his diagnosis of terminal, stage IV lung cancer at age 36, when he was at the end of his training to become a neurosurgeon. "Medical Humanities" is a recent movement that emphasizes an empathetic and humanistic treatment of disease, illness, and the doctor-patient relationship, and this interdisciplinary course, open to all majors, offers students an avenue by which to explore these issues.