Research Proposal

My primary sources are Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s 1862 sensation novel Lady Audley’s Secret and the 2000 film adaptation of the same title directed by Betsan Morris Evans. Lady Audley’s Secret tells the tale of a woman who changes her identity in order to marry a wealthy man after her first husband leaves her penniless and unable to care for their child. When Lady Audley’s first husband comes looking for her upon his return from sea, she sends him falling down a well to his supposed demise. As Robert Audley, Sir Michael Audley’s nephew, searches for his lost friend (who happens to be Lady Audley’s first husband), Lady Audley tries to send him off her trail, eventually attempting to set fire to the inn he was staying at. Eventually, Lady Audley’s first husband is found to be alive, Lady Audley must confess her sins to her second husband, and then she is sent to an asylum where she eventually dies, despite a refusal by Dr. Mosgrave to declare her mad. The film interpretation of the novel is similar to the book’s plot but differs in that Dr. Mosgrave is outraged at Lady Audley’s dark deeds and diagnoses her as mad, dangerous, and “unfeminine.” In addition, Lady Audley attempts to argue for her reasoning behind her crimes, stating that, as a woman, there are few options when it comes to earning a large enough income to support a family, and that marrying into wealth is by far the best way to accomplish this. Questions that these texts, when put into comparison, raise are: How does the difference between Dr. Mosgrave’s diagnosis of Lady Audley in the book and in the film speak to the stigma surrounding postpartum madness/depression during the 1800s? Given the misconception of hereditary madness from mother to daughter at the time, how does Lady Audley equate a woman’s madness and suffering to a man’s monetary inheritance? How does the direct clash between Lady Audley’s “unfeminine” madness in the film and her mother’s complacent feminine madness in the novel serve as a discourse on the connection between women and madness in the 1800s? How does Lady Audley’s blame on society as a motive for her crimes in the film compare to the blame that she places on her physical body for causing her madness in the novel?

Secondary sources that would allow me to explore my research questions include scholarly books and articles that address the novel Lady Audley’s Secret, its 2000 film interpretation, the novel and film together, or mental illness in women in the 1800s. Particularly helpful secondary sources that involve the film and/or the novel would address Lady Audley’s reasoning behind her crimes, Dr. Mosgrave’s diagnosis, or the inheritance of madness in Lady Audley’s biological family. Pamela K. Gilbert’s A Companion to Sensation Fiction directly addresses Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s double writing career, during which she wrote books for the higher classes under her own name and similar stories for the middle class anonymously. Gilbert also describes Braddon’s attempt to break from the sensation formula and create plots from her characters instead of vice versa. Jessica Cox’s article entitled “From Page to Screen: Transforming M. E. Braddon’s Lady Audley’s Secret” compares the novel to its 2000 film interpretation, looking into the change in plot and feminist messages, and possibly attributing it to the change in time period as well as the change from woman writer to male scriptwriter. Besides finding more scholarly articles, other sources I am considering using are The Female Malady: Women, Madness, and English Culture 1830-1980 by Elaine Showalter and The Contested Castle: Gothic Novels and the Subversion of Domestic Ideology by Kate Ellis.

In constructing my research project, I am hoping to address the inconsistency between the novel and the film adaptation, specifically regarding Lady Audley’s madness, its connection to motherhood and poverty, and, in turn, her reasoning behind her multiple attempts at murder. It is particularly fascinating that Robert Audley references the misconception of hereditary madness amongst women to Dr. Mosgrave in both interpretations and that Dr. Mosgrave informs him in both that this does not exist, but that Lady Audley is diagnosed differently in each work, although she is also still tied to madness in both simply because of her being a woman. It may seem insignificant to examine why Lady Audley casts her blame either on her mad brain or the patriarchal society depending on the text, but analyzing the differences in these claims and their historical context can possibly reveal information that can further complicate Lady Audley as a character and expand on the novel’s plot, the plots of other contemporary novels, or on life as a woman, mother, and/or madwoman in the 1800s.


I Need a Hero

When I read “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” for the first time, I admit that I was disappointed and let down by Gawain’s unconventional heroism. Unlike the hero I expected, Gawain lets himself be even slightly tempted by the Lady, is dishonest in the trading game with the Lord, and is genuinely afraid of his looming reunion with the Green Knight. It honestly just seemed like, because of his place as a character in a story, everything worked out for him– not because he was particularly special or brave as traditional heroes are. However, on my more recent second reading, I realized that these things make Gawain especially charming and, well, human. This is what a real-life hero looks like. They make mistakes and recognize temptations but try their best to maintain their values, with no guarantees. As Davenport (at the end of the Norton edition) writes, “the ‘dangerous edge of things’ is offered for our interest…and, like Jonah, Gawain eventually appears as something of a heroic fool who thought wrongly that life played fair and according to the rules, even while he fails to conduct his own life according to them” (132). He also writes that “these are played off against ordinary human, even unchivalrous, qualities, particularly fear, to create a figure who eventually seems to possess character and not just characteristics” (133). And Gawain is surely his own character. He’s even a subordinate. He isn’t a leader or in charge of anything. He’s just a guy that’s part of the court that tries to be heroic. He diverges from the stock character in a way that renews the typical knight adventure story in a way that was more entertaining than before because of its lack of predictability. (Just to mention because it keeps bothering me: This really reminds me of Shrek— it’s just the whole unlikely-hero-who-makes-lots-of-mistakes-and-has-an-unpredictable-ending thing, I guess. Maybe it’s loosely based on the idea?)

Davenport even explains that this surprise was expressed by earlier readers as well. They were used to the traditional hero being perfect, getting the girl, and having a happy ending. However, as he writes, “it is the poet’s ingenious pleasure to attempt to satisfy his reader’s interest in adventure while partly frustrating such expectations by eschewing the easy romance path and attempting a more penetrating treatment of the knight, showing him as an individual struggling to accomplish an impossible task. The poet also avoids the hero’s easy triumph and colours his ‘happy ending’ with a sense of partial failure and anticlimax, placing idealism in the light of unheroic reality and deflating comedy” (131-132). Using Davenport’s language, it seems clear that this was a conscious decision on the part of the Gawain poet. He purposefully wanted to use a character that the people would have already known of, but ensure that they notice his fallability and recognize the true difficulty behind trying to reach the ideals of knighthood. As Gawain shows, it isn’t nearly as easy as we have previously seen.

I think learning about this aspect of historical context does two things for my reading of the poem. 1) I feel more connected and similar to readers of the past than before. I always think of stuffy people completely understanding Shakespeare when I think of earlier readers, but they still craved the same kind of adventure that we do now and were even as surprised with Gawain’s divergence from the norm as I was. 2) Gawain’s story is more timeless to me now. This relates to my previous point in that Gawain was just as unlikely to be a hero as he would be today. And it’s comforting that there are stories throughout time of anyone doing some brave things, and also being human and failing sometimes. Because both can happen in the real world. I definitely think linking the history to the poem made my approach to the story less critical and instead more understanding. I know this is touchy-feely, but it’s just cool to see that some things haven’t changed much.


I Know What You’re Thinking– Nope, I Really Don’t

I think the biggest theme that came up for me this week was recognizing and accepting all neurological difference across literature. I may be missing a bigger point, but looking at the specific “mind reading” section of Savarese and Zunshine reminded me of the bias we have when we read. Savarese brings up that “a ‘typical’ autist, after all, doesn’t write the way Mukhopadhyay, Williams, and Prince do. The last I checked, however, a typical neurotypical doesn’t write the way Henry James, Shakespeare, and Austen do either. Yet as we admire James’s, Shakespeare’s, and Austen’s genius, we do not say that they are anomalies and outliers on the neurotypical spectrum. Instead we feel that they are ‘like us,’ only more intensely so, glorifying the community of ‘us,’ by showing ‘us’ what ‘we’ are capable of.” We are proud of our revered fellow neurotypicals, but we also refuse to recognize that autistic writers can have the same ability. I admit that I even read like this with Mukhopadhyay, preventing myself from being too enamored with his work because of his difference. And that’s pretty horrible. But that’s what we’ve been exposed to. Luckily, things are changing now. During a library observation I did back when I was an elementary education major, I was pleasantly surprised by finding a whole section of picture books called things like My Friend Has Autism and Mr. Worry: A Story About OCD. Hopefully, more discussion about and interaction with neurodiversity will bring with it more comfort and acceptance.

In his conversation with Zunshine, Savarese said that “if we’re going to judge autistics on their ability to read neurotypical minds, then we must be judged on our ability to read autistic ones…What I’d like to see is a humble, neurocosmopolitan theory of mind that doesn’t test for the performance of a central emotion in a normative or naturalized way.” This was confusing for me. What I got from it was this idea that we can’t diagnose characters just because they act differently from the norm since, as Savarese had said, we all act differently from the norm– the amount just varies. Bringing Bartleby into this, I don’t know if we can diagnose him with anything particular, or if we have the right to. I’m not sure what Melville had in mind when he was writing Bartleby, and even though Bartleby does act differently from the norm, the other employees of the narrator are also quite unique. Bartleby definitely stood out the most, and refusing to do work at your own job is a bit strange, but I really don’t know if I can read it as autism. But then am I failing at what Savarese says at first? Is it necessary to diagnose Bartleby in order to appreciate/understand the story?

Zunshine summarizes Savarese’s idea in that “it is not enough to acknowledge the neurotypical problem of presuming that classical autistics must not have theory of mind because they don’t comport themselves in ways that neurotypicals recognize as socially meaningful and acceptable.” Ríos’ story reminded me of Mukhopadhyay’s memoir immediately because of the mirrors and reflections. But again, in such an emotional story, the mirrors and reflections are indeed symbolic, if also literal. The seeing of one’s self in other things also reminded me of “The Yellow Wallpaper,” but the tone seemed much different to me, closer to Mukhopadhyay than Gilman. I just still don’t see how one can diagnose a character because of his or her individuality. Do we really get something extra from the piece if we do? If we just figure, like Savarese says, that each narrator/character/author is a unique individual and not measure him or her by the norm, isn’t that just as good? How can I say why a character acts as he or she does?

Like last week, I’m mostly posing questions– but I promise I’m thinking about it all. Perhaps it’s the wording of “mind reading” that is bothering me because I think of something being projected onto another, or maybe it’s just the idea of whether or not we can diagnose a character– and whether we get anything from that. Let me know what you think (because I can’t read your mind– or maybe I can?)!


The Curious Incident of the Unrepresentative Individual

As I was reading the reviews for The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, this question kept popping back up in my mind: Do we accept a fictional character as he is, or do we have the right to find the flaws that make him unrealistic and unrepresentative?

I have my own issues with Christopher’s character. He portrays the idea of the autistic savant, a quality that is often thought to belong to a majority of autistic people, but really only represents some individuals. As Bartmess writes, “my specific point is that this book portrays its autistic protagonist in ways that will give readers negative, incorrect, and in some cases abusive ideas about autistic people.” And she’s right. It’s ignored (as far as we can tell) that Christopher is abused throughout the novel. Bartmess goes on to say that “even in the best-case scenario, this book does not give an inexperienced reader any sense of how an autistic person could be an interesting conversation partner, or a friend, or a kind person.” Christopher is portrayed as understanding love, but he also suffers from violence and is violent himself. He counts his squares when he gets upset– that unrepresentative savant quality coming back once again. But should Christopher, an individual, be representative?

At the same time, however, Haddon never agreed to take on educating the masses about autism– he wrote a fictional story about a character whose traits seem similar to those that would belong to one with Asperger’s. As we have discussed in class already, you ca never generalize all autistic people into one character. No matter what, he would have been wrong; he would have missed something or given Christopher certain characteristics that vary from person to person. And after all, this is a work of fiction. Should we be so concerned about a fictional character not being completely realistic? (I ask because I don’t know the answer.) I think partly yes, because the portrayal of anyone in a negative light can bring about misconceptions that could be applied in the real world. But still, I can’t help but think about some comments on Bartmess’ article, which include reminders that this is a fictional piece and accounts of incidents in which some people thought that this novel was in fact an autobiography. As Kakutani writes, “Mr. Haddon…never condescends to his character; nor does he romanticize the boy’s condition…[Christopher] never for a moment feels like a generic teenager or a composite portrait of someone with Asperger’s syndrome.” Perhaps this is what makes Christopher feel so real to some readers. He’s an individual. We learn his specific thoughts as he allows us into his mind. But perhaps also Christopher feeds off of what some people already think of as stereotypical when it comes to autism.

I still don’t have an answer to my initial question, and I’d love to hear what anyone has to say about it. I do think that fiction can be convincing and realistic, and be a story about an individual that is actually an individual (not a stereotype or compilation of an entire population). Reading stories does change our worldview sometimes. However, this is still a work of fiction, and the unrealistic-ness of the severity of Christopher’s Asperger’s can be argued to be a big reminder of this. But is it Haddon’s responsibility to educate in addition to tell a story? Do we have the right to say that Christopher is “wrong” when he is really a compilation of words, ideas, and mental images? Should we make a single fictional character representative of a population in our minds? Maybe this is all our fault instead of Haddon’s?


Let’s Get Ready to Rumble!

In Representing Autism, Murray picks quite a few fights with scholars in order to expose the trend of fearing, misrepresenting, and mistreating autism and convey his own more inclusive and dimensional perspective. He gives the example of the language used in a guidebook for parents of children with autism: “In such texts, autism is often portrayed as a condition open to treatment and remedy precisely because it is seen to have a base psychiatric component that allows for intervention and change. The notion that the child with autism can be ‘saved’ from the condition follows as a logic that says more about social fear and desire than it does about neurobehavioral difference” (7-8). By giving readers previous work done by scholars, it is easier for the author to continue on with his argument– as we are now all on the same page, know what he’s NOT saying, and can watch him take apart the words to form what he IS trying to say. Gaipa’s “Picking a Fight” strategy almost seems like showing your work for a math problem. It’s a lot easier to understand the result by seeing how you got there. Also, by “picking a fight,” you’re including past scholarly research, so you’re placing your work within the conversation.

Murray continues to include other scholars’ work and demonstrate how he disagrees with them, creating a collection and demonstrating a sample of that exact trend that he is arguing exists and needs to be countered in some way. He even uses Thinks…‘s Oliver to pick a fight against the use of “fixed” and stereotypical autistic characters (45-46). Murray follows up his criticism of two autistic characters by applauding two others– furthering the “Picking a Fight” method into something I’ll call “Giving a Sticker.” This strategy provides the readers with real text and examples that the writer supports, after seeing what the writer is trying to argue against. Comparing Christopher from The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time to Oliver from Thinks…, even if one hasn’t read either novel, Murray roots his argument in relevant texts and gives the reader the chance to notice the same differences that he has, proving his argument and showing its inner workings. At first, reading about methods like these seemed like common knowledge, but looking at their applications in a scholarly piece of writing showed more advanced ways to make one’s argument stronger but also easy to follow. Reading Murray, I felt like I was discovering this information with him instead of retracing his steps while he was writing. I felt included in his article– something strange to say about scholarly work, but definitely something that works!


Genre-Bending & “A Sense of History”: Feeling a Novel

I have to honestly say that We Love You, Charlie Freeman is one of the best books I’ve ever had to read for a course. It flew by, I loved the format, and I totally felt post-reading emptiness afterwards. That being said, I couldn’t help but compare it to Invisible Man. The character(s) in each novel are victims of extreme prejudice and are trying to fight against this system. However, the way these stories are told in each novel are significantly different, specifically when it comes to genre.

As we have discussed in class, Invisible Man belongs to no single genre. It touches on fable, general fiction, sci-fi and others. And it works extremely well. Ellison successfully disorients his readers at the same time as his main character, and uses this disorientation to further his story of racism, segregation, and the perpetual cycle of failure because of prejudice. Greenidge takes, in my opinion, quite a different approach. I felt completely oriented (probably because none of the narrators become biologically disoriented) and kept up with the story well. It was much easier to read– although some topics were just as heavy as Ellison’s. But after coming to this realization, I had a question. Which is better– genre-bending/compiling or keeping to a single genre? Well, I think it depends on what the author wants the reader to experience. By relentlessly switching genre in Invisible Man, I felt just as confused and unsure as the (multiple times’ over) unnamed Invisible Man. I think the feeling of the novel was just as important as the story. However, when following Charlotte, Laurel, Charles, Callie, and Nymphadora, I wanted to be alert to follow the story. I wanted to find out what was going on between Laurel and Charlie as the budding young woman Charlotte. As Nymphadora, I wanted to figure out my feelings for Dr. Gardner. Callie’s perspective made me want Charlie to learn to love her somehow. If I were disoriented because of the changing of genre as well as undergoing differing perspectives, the novel would have given me a much stronger confusion– which I think wasn’t as valued as following the actual plot and uncovering the atrocities of the Toneybee.

Continuing with the various perspectives of We Love You, Charlie Freeman (although only Charlotte’s perspective is in first person, I think), I believe that these perspectives are tools just as useful as the varying genres of Invisible Man in expressing the issues surrounding racism in history and in present-day. Invisible Man made me feel confused about exactly what the narrator was doing wrong each time he was turned away from school, jobs, and the Brotherhood. I physically (mentally?) felt confused, not just because of the plot, but because of the change in genre– I still don’t know if the lobotomy actually happened, for example. But I think the ambiguity and confusion is intentional and part of the novel’s larger message. On the other hand, the single genre of We Love You, Charlie Freeman doesn’t make it lesser than (in fact, I liked this novel a lot more). I think that the shifting narratives and changing perspectives serve the stories in coming together to form a timeline of horrific racism, animal treatment, and present-day conflicts. Like I said before (but I feel like I need to say again because it’s really hard to put these feelings into words), I really wanted to be on top of the plot in this novel. (I tried this for Ellison, but I wound up letting the confusion take me on the narrator’s journey.) Because of each character’s desperate need for something plot-based, whether it be love or justice or something else, I wanted to be sure I knew what was going on in the plot for each person. And I think it had an equally effective commentary on racism as Invisible Man. Because of the shocking experiments at the Toneybee in the past and each character’s strong pursuit for something related to the Toneybee, I felt the need for the truth as well. I searched for it in the text and, once the text was over, I searched for it in the world around me. I questioned articles I read and wondered, is this the WHOLE story? But by either recognizing our invisibility or leaving the Toneybee, are we actually making efforts to find out?


In Your Write Mind

“So why do I write, torturing myself to put it down?” A question all of us have asked ourselves at some time or another, Ellison’s protagonist asks himself this in the epilogue, which touches on various topics we have discussed already– and interconnects them in new ways. Ellison uses a literary technique off the bat by even choosing to include an epilogue from our now invisible man, who lives underground. The epilogue not only allows the readers to find out about the protagonist’s present life, but it also gives the protagonist the opportunity to reflect both on the events that have happened in his past, but also on his writing (and arguably, re-living) of those events. The protagonist writes: “So why do I write, torturing myself to put it down? Because in spite of myself I’ve learned some things. Without the possibility of action all knowledge comes to one labeled “file and forget,” and I can neither file nor forget. Nor will certain ideas forget me; they keep filing away at my lethargy, my complacency” (579). Because the narrator recognizes that he can’t simply “file and forget,” he needs to take action in some way. The narrator defines writing as a form of taking action with regards to his new knowledge. He repeats himself and personifies ideas– ideas are capable of forgetting.

The protagonist goes on: “Here I’ve set out to throw my anger into the world’s face, but now that I’ve tried to put it all down the old fascination with playing a role returns, and I’m drawn upward again. So that even before I finish I’ve failed…The very act of trying to put it all down has confused me and negated some of the anger and some of the bitterness. So it is now that I denounce and defend, or feel prepared to defend. I condemn and affirm, say no and say yes, say yes and say no” (579). This reminded me of Damasio’s body cycles, only in a more literary way: The narrator feels, writes (which makes him re-feel), and then will become conscious of his writing (re-feeling the writing process). Ellison adds a third party to the body cycle: mind, body, piece of writing. The protagonist also adds the very complex idea of contradictions to the epilogue. As he writes, “And the mind that has conceived a plan of living must never lose sight of the chaos against which that pattern was conceived” (580). He directly mentions the mind in the epilogue, specifically his mind, as he discusses how his mind has been directly impacted by his life thus far. I’m not sure about his mental state by the end of the novel. He seems sane, but severely broken down from trying his best in every situation but also being rejected or misinterpreted because of his race.

Near the end of the epilogue, the protagonist pulls us into his discussion: “‘Ah,’ I can hear you say, ‘so it was all a build-up to bore us with his buggy jiving.’…But only partially true:…What else but try to tell you what was really happening when your eyes were looking through?” (581). That last sentence really struck me. Not only is the narrator reaffirming his invisibility, but he’s also trying to show that his story is telling us what we’re not allowing ourselves to see. He is revealing the existence of realities that we refuse to encounter or of narratives we will never learn of because of our limited vision. What was really happening when your eyes were looking through (instead of at) [my invisible body]?


If You’re Happy and You Know It

As intimidated as I was to read about theories of consciousness this week, I immediately found Damasio’s writing to be really interesting–and even reminiscent of my childhood. (Dehaene, in my opinion, was a lot more technical and lost me more often than Damasio did.) Damasio started off asking questions like: “What could be more difficult to know than to know how we know? What could be more dizzying than to realize that it is our having consciousness which makes possible and even inevitable our questions about consciousness?” (Stepping into the Light, 4). The latter question specifically struck me. It’s almost like a literal “it takes one to know one.” It takes consciousness to recognize consciousness. Now that I think about it, this could even be represented in Neurocomic when the main character is looking in the mirror and speaking with his reflection. In order for the character to have this conversation about consciousness with himself/some version of himself, he needed to be conscious. Damasio’s (and Dehaene’s) definition of consciousness also proved particularly useful. While we may refer to the conscious and the unconscious or times we have “knocked out,” this can be really confusing when reading neuroscience articles. To Damasio, being conscious isn’t simply being awake. “Consciousness begins when brains acquire the power…of telling a story without words…The apparent self emerges as a feeling of a feeling” (Stepping into the Light, 30-31). This “feeling of a feeling” is what I interpreted as something I learned about and observed while taking education classes– something as simple as “If You’re Happy and You Know It.” This “knowing it” is the criterion of consciousness that I’m evaluating here. A more comical example is the end of Jim Carrey’s performance as the Grinch in The Grinch Who Stole Christmas. Unused to experiencing emotion, the Grinch not only feels, but recognizes and processes (is “conscious” of) the presence of emotions. Feeling something and then knowing of your feeling it, or recognizing your consciousness, therefore makes you conscious.

Damasio answers his initial questions in a few ways, one of them being the following: “Organisms unequipped to generate core consciousness are condemned to making images of sight or sound or touch, there and then, but cannot come to know that they did. From its most humble beginnings, consciousness is knowledge, knowledge consciousness, no less connected than truth and beauty were for Keats” (Stepping into the Light, 26). In simpler terms, Damasio calls conscious beings “[witnesses] to the mind” (Self Comes to Mind, 12). It seems that although witnessing is Damasio’s term, an active research that goes above and beyond just witnessing also counts. This reminds me of Siri Hustvedt, but also of Helen Reed and Ralph Messenger– all characters/people that not only felt and recognized the process of feeling that were taking place, but also took an active role in researching this phenomenon. Damasio certainly doesn’t answer all of my questions about consciousness (perhaps there aren’t answers just yet), but he put into words something that never really occurred to me, something I never really took the time to think about and get to know (whoa, knowing about knowing about knowing).


The Story Behind AND Within the Illness

Hustvedt takes 199 pages, years of research and introspection, countless doctor’s appointments, and quite a few writing workshops at the hospital to come to the conclusion that is her last sentence of this novel: “I shook that day and then I shook again on other days. I am the shaking woman” (199). This can be compared with her initial argument: “The shaking woman is not the narrating woman. The narrating, interpreting woman continued on while the other shook” (54). What changed? How could Hustvedt come to identify with her condition, something that she at first wanted to get rid of immediately?

Hustvedt complicates the simple biological view of Neurocomic with her argument of the existence of narratives within illness and the inability to separate the two [“Wasn’t that narrative part of the sickness itself? Can the two be separated?” (37).]. Hustvedt certainly writes of many scientific experiments that could be related to her shaking and how their results could help her self-diagnose, but she also discusses her personal experiences with other ill people, whose narratives start to evolve her perspective. She writes of patients that she has taught in writing workshops, how they have revealed tragic experiences through their writing, and postulates how these experiences have affected their illnesses. She even writes about herself and her daughter, migraine-sufferers who have experienced hallucinations from the migraines. Yes, I think that Hustvedt makes the point that life events can trigger illnesses– she makes that clear with the grief of her father’s death. However, I also believe that Hustvedt (as she writes) begins to argue that the illness itself affects the person and becomes part of the person. Schizophrenics may miss the voices that they once heard. Migraine sufferers could feel strange without seeing auras. Hustvedt argues that an illness becomes part of one’s character– just as she transitions from separating herself with the shaking woman to recognizing that they are one and the same. Neurocomic, in explaining what could go wrong in neurons, explains: “However, some useful drugs like antidepressants are on our team…Often in brain disorders neurons don’t make enough neurotransmitters to open the synaptic receptors (so, for example, the brain is unable to feel pleasure). That’s when we call for a little help!” (54). Phrases such as the parenthetical “the brain is unable to feel pleasure” and calling “useful drugs like antidepressants” “a little help” even arguably dismisses the emotional and social impact that one experiences from an illness because of the biological language that suggests a quick fix. Neurocomic also does not take into account the impact that the drugs would have on the patient as Hustvedt does.

“Is your 4 my 5? Is Charlie’s 9 Daya’s 2?…Do you expire after a 10? The notion that degrees of pain can be charted by numbers is ludicrous but routine. The attempt to avoid ambiguity only increases it” (181). Hustvedt’s recognition of the necessity of emotionally distanced and standardized scientific measurements such as the scale of pain still appears to reject such methods because of just how different the human experience is from person to person. Hustvedt goes on: “I do not have an answer to these questions but, like Wall, I ask whether it is possible to isolate an experience such as pain from its context” (183). This context or, as Hustvedt calls it more often, narrative is indeed separated from the biological in Neurocomic— while Hustvedt argues for its inclusion in order to further understand one’s condition and character. Hustvedt realizes the importance of not just the story behind one’s illness, but also the value of the story within it– how especially mental conditions become part of a person because they are part of the mind (not just an affliction of the brain).


Mind the Gap

Source: Flickr

“She splits her split ends. She pulls each blind down exactly halfway. She checks his in-box. She reads the Airline Safety Instruction card before takeoff.” Hahn’s “Brain Implant #3: Patterns” immediately reminded me of a piece I had read in my nonfiction course over the summer. And no, it wasn’t a required reading prescribed by the professor. The piece that easily impacted me the most in those four short weeks was a work by one of my fellow classmates about her continuous struggle with OCD. Way over the page limit (but none of us minded), my classmate included lines of original poems, quotes as she remembered them, and other devices to allow us to see the past few years of her life through her own eyes. She included instances like Hahn’s “[pulling] each blind down exactly halfway” that she herself experienced, and showed us how, simultaneously, she wanted to resolve the discomfort by (using Hahn’s example) fixing the blinds again and again, but also how terrified she was of her own mind. “Brain Implant #3: Patterns” indeed reminds me of the brain because of the title, but it primarily deals with the mind. I can’t quite get my head around if I believe that the poem is demonstrating that the brain houses the mind because the epigraph suggests that a change in the biological brain can “fix” the mind though. Maybe it is, but I’m also getting the feeling that it’s showing that there’s so much more to the mind than the biological brain, perhaps because of the stark differences between this poem and Neurocomic. 

Instead of depicting what goes on within the mind on a more emotional level, Farinella and Ros’ Neurocomic looks specifically into the biology of the brain, how it works, and how biological factors affect one’s emotional life in an, I’d argue, mind-equals-brain fashion. For example, Farinella and Ros write, “Many drugs are modulators of dopamine and serotonin, so they have a stimulating effect, prolonging and boosting pleasant sensations” (53). Neurocomic is a good source for learning the biological basics of the brain– about hormones, drugs, receptors, and the history of theories about how the brain works. And it pretty much shows that most emotional problems stem from something wrong in the brain– and fixing these problems within the brain will resolve the situation. Hahn, however, seems to argue otherwise. The technical language of the epigraph contrasts with Hahn’s incomplete sentences and lack of continuity between ideas. Hahn uses images to show her readers concrete reminders of anxiety and OCD that come from the mind as a distinct object from the brain, almost asking her readers: how can all of these things be solved from one biological change in the brain? My classmate from this summer appeared to take a similar view. The medication couldn’t take care of the stress from the stigma surrounding her diagnosis or the feeling that she needed to be “fixed” in the first place. Yes, a biological issue in the brain was at play, but is that all? I’m no scientist so I’m not sure, and the evidence on both sides seems convincing, but I do think I’m leaning more towards the idea that there’s some gap that we’re missing.