On March 14, Joan Cusack Handler, Teresa Carson and Judith Hannan participated in the inaugural Humanism Day Conference at the University of Medicine & Dentistry of New Jersey in Newark, New Jersey. Their workshop, “Humanism and Literature: A Symbiotic Relationship,” focused on how literature, specifically our Laurel Books imprint, provides a window into the lived experience of illness and as such is a valuable clinical tool which fosters more open/humanistic communication between doctors and patient. The well-attended and well-received session included brief remarks from Joan, readings and comments by Teresa and Judith, and a talkback with the audience.
Here is the text of Joan’s remarks:
My sincere thanks to the Humanism Center and its director, Dr. Wilson, for hosting this important conference and for inviting CavanKerry to participate. Thanks as well to Tanya Torment who made participation so graceful by tending personally to our needs.
I come to you wearing several hats—writer, publisher, psychologist in clinical practice, and veteran patient of the medical system—all of which inform my belief in the intimate, in fact, symbiotic relationship between humanism and literature and the unequivocal importance of literary art in the education of doctors and all medical personnel. Given that the subject matter of both literature and humanistic medicine is the internal life of the whole person, literature helps all of us—patient, doctor, family, caregiver– manage the often wretched world that illness creates by exposing the underbelly of all life and death in ways that we are seldom privy to—even in a clinical setting.
Humanistic medicine’s most powerful clinical tool, the narrative interview, provides the core of the physician’s insight into the internal life of his/her patients. Regrettably however, its power is limited: by time, increasing patient load and the relative openness (or lack thereof) of the patient who is often either cut off from his/her feelings or reticent to open up to the revered doctor. Likewise, the less experienced medical student. Learning the hard science of medicine while working long hours dispensing medicine on the hospital floor, leaves little time for attending to the internal life of patients. So too the nurses, aides, technicians, physical & occupational therapists. Yet to fully treat physical & mental suffering, one must be aware of the internal emotional/psychological landscape that illness creates—in the patient, in the family, in caregivers, in doctors. We propose that a literature written by patients themselves would be a valuable clinical tool to help fill that gap.
And the need is more than professional, it’s personal as well. Doctors and caregivers need literature to help them process their own feelings about life in general and specifically illness—theirs, their familly’s and their patients’. Literary art names things for us. Sometimes it names what we feel–what we cannot express on our own. In a world that’s increasingly more isolating, it tells us that we’re not alone.
In keeping with our mission to serve art and community and to bring literature to the underserved, CKP established LaurelBooks: The Literature of Illness and Disability. Founded on the belief that literature provides a powerful window into the human psyche and thereby is a rich clinical tool, LaurelBooks are written by artist patients who paint the portrait of the lived experience of illness, and in so doing, teach us what illness really feels like, what is hidden beneath the courageous struggle to manage illness, what vulnerabilities the ill experience, how guilty and ashamed they feel, how pain disrupts a life and leaves room for nothing or no one, how isolating illness is, what damage illness reeks on their families, their marriages. This is precisely the understanding of human behavior and frailty that forms the bedrock of the most humanistic care we all aspire to.
CKP approached the Arnold P. Gold Foundation for the Advancement of Humanism in Medicine requesting that they partner with us in this new imprint. Given their commitment to revive and reinforce the human side of medicine and CKP’s commitment to both present the human side of life through literature (our goal is Lives Brought to Life) and to bring such fine literature to wider/underserved populations, the partnership answered both missions. LaurelBooks address such topics as childhood leukemia, multiple sclerosis, bone marrow transplant, lymphoma, suicide, cerebral hemorhage, schizophrenia, emotional dysfunction & Ewing’s Sarcoma. Together with the Gold Foundation, CKP has conducted LaurelBooks In Their Own Voices readings at Gilda’s Club of NJ, Columbia University’s College of Physicians & Surgeons, Holy Name Hospital and the UMDNJ, Robert Wood Johnson & Columbia University Medical Schools. To celebrate National Poetry Month in April we will conduct workshops in four NJ hospitals as part of the Humanism and Medicine program sponsored by the NJ Council on the Humanities and have been invited to appear here at UMDNJ Grand Rounds later this spring.
I am delighted to introduce to you two of CKP LaurelBooks authors, Teresa Carson, author of Elegy for the Floater and Judith Hannon, author of Motherhood Exaggerated who will share examples of their work that will attest to the power of literature to reveal the inner world of illness and disability.