Speaking with Frankenstein

Jayne Lewis & Johanna Shapiro

This collaborative essay experimentally applies the insights of Mary Shelley’s 1818 gothic fantasy Frankenstein to clinical interactions between present-day physicians and the patients they, akin to Shelley’s human protagonist, so often seem to bring (back) to life. Because that process is frequently fraught with unspoken elements of ambivalence, disappointment, frustration, and failure, we find in Shelley’s speculative fiction less a cautionary tale of overreach than a dynamic parable of the role that the unspoken, the invisible, and the unknown might play in contemporary physician/patient relationships. Playing with that parable, we consider its relevance to four often unacknowledged dynamics that shape physician/patient interaction: commitment to a false binary of life and death; the tyranny of normative aesthetics; shared negative affect; and the ethics of care and care-denial. To “speak with Frankenstein” is, we show, to make space for the otherwise unspeakable. The result is a more complete model of narrative medicine that accommodates to its ideal of open communication and full attention the persistence of what cannot be said, seen, or known–only imagined and approximated.

Keywords Medical aesthetics, Narrativemedicine, Gothic fiction, Medical ethics, Affect theory

Read the full article