Date on Master's Thesis/Doctoral Dissertation


Document Type

Doctoral Dissertation

Degree Name

Ph. D.



Committee Chair

Allen, Annette C.

Author's Keywords

Illness; Narrative; Phenomenology; Medical humanities


Sick--Personal narratives; Sick--Psychology; Sick--Biography--History and criticism; Narrative medicine


This dissertation uses a phenomenological and sociological lens to explore how non-fiction illness narratives help us understand how perception of the self is disrupted because of serious illness or injury. Specifically, I use the French philosopher, M. Merleau-Ponty's phenomenological thought concerning the body and the sociological perspective of medical sociologist, Arthur Frank and his types of narratives and how culture helps construct illness. I analyze the works of four different writers: Sarah Manguso, Oliver Sacks, Jean Dominique-Bauby, and Anatole Broyard. Chapter one serves as an introduction to the subject of illness writing and an overview of some of the material published during the past several decades. I discuss some of the functions of illness writing and summarize Frank's narrative types as well as explain some of the theories of Merleau-Ponty which are relevant to this study. In chapter two I analyze Sarah Manguso's The Two Kinds of Decay approaching her narrative as a poetic type of prose in which she addresses her illness from the perspective of someone who came through a particularly harrowing illness experience and emerged to cautiously recount the experience several years later. The third chapter's focus is Jean Dominique-Bauby's The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. I discuss Bauby's sense of disassociation caused by locked-in syndrome as a result of his need to escape what he metaphorically names the diving bell. Bauby, like Anatole Broyard who is discussed in the last chapter, does not survive the illness. Chapter four's focus is Oliver Sacks and his book, A Leg To Stand On. Like Manguso, Sacks tells the story looking back from the present into the past. He moves beyond his injury, but the self-objectification that occurs in his narrative is a testament to the nature of disembodiment as an almost necessary phenomenon for living through severe physical trauma. Chapter five is a discussion of Anatole Broyard and his book, Intoxicated By My Illness. Broyard's book is a compilation of his writings - mainly journals created during the time from his diagnosis and his subsequent journey through prostate cancer, which eventually took his life. In the conclusion I speculate about the effect of these narratives on the reader and briefly explore several other texts written by professional writers who were ill.