Q: What do you call a medical humanities scholar having an identity crisis?
I’m a PhD, a researcher and curator for a medical history museum, an editor for an anthropology journal, and a fiction writer. I’m frequently asked how that’s even possible… surely these things are too disparate to work?
Not as much as you might think. I spent this past weekend at the 40th annual World Fantasy Convention in Washington D.C. If you’re not familiar, WFC is an annual gathering of professional writers, editors, agents, collectors, and others interested in the field of Light and Dark Fantasy art and literature. It’s also a wonderful place to meet and catch up with your fiction colleagues, and in that way, is not unlike most of the academic conferences I attend. There are other similarities, too; for instance, I sat in on a panel about the ethical treatment of historical figures in fiction–and that’s not radically different from the discussions I encountered at the American Association for the History of Medicine. When we write history, fiction or non-fiction, we find ourselves having to channel key figures, to hear and recreate their voices, and to do so without compromising truth.
Oh, there’s that tricky word again… “truth.” It’s often accompanied with it’s equally problematic brother, objectivity. In a recent conversation about my cultural history of death (Feb 2015), I was asked how I could be objective if I was also choosing what to represent, which stories to tell, which details to include…and which to leave out. “I’m not objective,” I explained. “No one is.”
But that’s not the whole story, either, is it? In my life as an academic–with my PhD in literary history and my curatorial work for the medical history museum–I am always striving for objectivity. Historians are sticklers for facts and details. But even with all the facts aligned, we must tell a story, provide a narrative. And on the other side, when writing fiction, we nonetheless aim to provide a kind of truth, however we understand that.
“We have a responsibility to the collective understanding of historical figures,” said panelist David Coe (D.B. Jackson). “I don’t own Samuel Adams. If I want to use him in my fiction, I have to be faithful to what history says about him, and how he is received and understood by the public.” Historians also have an ethical responsibility; if facts emerge that cast a historical figure in a radically different light, we cannot be afraid to share this new information. On the other hand, we must never manufacture our own conjecture as though it were factual. (A case in point might be the spurious claim that 18th century anatomist and physician William Hunter murdered his patients, something which has been thoroughly debunked from numerous quarters, but which still occasionally shows up in print as “fact.” For more, see here.)
Fiction and non-fiction writing may seem divergent, but my work on the academic and non-academic side of the word processor bring me often to the same set of questions. My work on the anthropology journal brings me back to them, too, as does museum exhibit creation, where we must tell big stories in small spaces. Curiosity and attention to what we include and exclude, what stories we tell and which ones we don’t, should not be niche specific. Ethics and narrative don’t just belong to medical humanities. They belong to humanity, period.
So, here’s to conferences and colleagues that remind us of our mutual interests–and our mutual needs. Do I sometimes feel I’m suffering an identity crisis? Somewhere between grading papers, writing fiction, proofing monographs and editing anthropology…yes, yes, I do. But that’s okay. The more people I meet, the more I am convinced that, deep down, it’s what we are all doing all the time.