MedHum Monday Presents: The Power of Story

DailyDose_darkstrokeThe language of logical arguments, of proofs, is the language of the limited self we know and can manipulate. But the language of parable and poetry, of storytelling, moves from the imprisoned language of the provable into the freed language of what I must, for lack of another word, continue to call faith. —Madeleine L’Engle

Story is far older than the art of science and psychology, and will always be the elder in the equation no matter how much time passes. —Clarissa Pinkola Estes

What makes story so powerful to us? Why do we retell and retell them? Look back upon your life, and know that even our histories are revisionist. With each new addition to our lives, the backstory shifts to accommodate. Write it down and record it all you like, we have far more in common with the bards who tailored and expanded their tales in the telling than we do with mere mechanical memory. It’s little wonder that stories help us understand ourselves, our time, and the history that came before us.

I teach a class called Gothic Science: Discovery and Dread in the 18th century. As I work in a medical history museum, I have access–and can give students access–to all manner of wondrous texts and artifacts. But I begin the semester by having them read a novel, and not even a period novel. It’s Lazarus Curse by Tessa Harris (she’s appeared on this blog’s counterpart, the Fiction Reboot). Surely this is misleading, some might suggest; why not start with some 18th century novel, if you plan to discuss fiction at all… Well, I do that, too. We end the semester by reading Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. But entering into a course of complicated historical science readings requires some preparation. Before launching them into Sloane, Willis, and Locke–or Hunter, Smellie, and the anatomists–or Galvani and Volta–I want them to “see” and “feel” the era we’re about to study. What better way than through the historical mystery presented by Harris? Jamaican slaves end up on dissection tables, botanical explorers go missing, and a dangerous plant seems to have the power to resurrect the dead… And along the way, the students see the social, cultural, and scientific world of eighteenth century England.

It moves them, the students. They come with questions–why sail to far away places and risk danger just for plants? How did class and race affect who was treated (medically) and by whom? What did this mean for our understanding of humanity? That is, who counts? And most importantly, how did the desire for discovery lead so often to dread (and the repercussions of fearing the “other”)? We move on to non-fiction from there, and the science finds a foothold because the story teaches us to care.

This is true in other ways, as well. I write both fiction and non-fiction, myself. I’ve worked on the history of disease and how syphilis may have influenced the vampire mythology as it emerged in Dracula (see podcast–or Unnatural Reproductions). I also write a middle-grade series from the opposite perspective: what if vampirism was, itself, a disease… a disorder of the blood? In the Jacob Maresbeth Chronicles (High Stakes, Villagers, and The Vatican), the titular character faces off to something even more frightening than stake-wielding Van Helsings: a medical establishment dedicated to funding pharma at any cost. We tend to villanize the ill, to make monsters out of those things we don’t understand. It’s not always easy to see that in the midst, say, of a newscast on the Ebola outbreak… but the distance, perspective, and empathy that fiction provides can help us see ourselves, and our fears, with fresh eyes.

It moves us, as L’Engle explains, beyond the limits of self. This is the power of story. May we remember that today and everyday.


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