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Danielle Spencer on Storytelling, Critical Theory, and Illness Narratives

Danielle Spencer has had a unique and peripatetic career. A scholar of critical theory and former associate of iconic artists Nan Goldin and David Byrne of Talking Heads, she now works as a faculty member in the M.S. program in Narrative Medicine.

Trained in the humanities, she got her start in the art world. After graduating from Yale in 1996, she moved to New York, where she worked for Goldin in her studio on the Bowery. Following a brief stint working at an art school in France, she returned to Manhattan where she resumed working for Goldin before departing for graduate school at NYU. In her master's program, she studied critical theory – “post-structuralists: Derrida, Baudrillard, all that kind of stuff.” In 2001, she began to work as the art director for Byrne, the former lead singer of one of the most acclaimed bands of the ‘80s, Talking Heads.

She left that role in 2011 and, transformed by a personal experience of illness, entered the Narrative Medicine program. There, she brought her critical theory training to bear on stories of health and healthcare. After graduating in 2012, she became an associate faculty member for the program.

What excites her about Narrative Medicine is the same thing that sparked her interest in the humanities – the chance to explore stories, methods of storytelling, and how these tales impact the writer and the reader.

Just outside of Uris Hall on Columbia’s Morningside Heights campus, we spoke about the heuristic process of writing illness narratives and how the humanities can help heal health care.

Tell me a little bit about your career in art and music.

In 2001, I got this job as the art director for David Byrne. I did that for 10 years. It was a combination of graphic design and web design, but we also collaborated on artistic and design projects. It was very multimedia, interdisciplinary, always something new and something different.

I've always been drawn to interdisciplinary spaces. Working with David Byrne was very much in that vein because he was always interested in unsettling boundaries. He was trying to get people to talk to each other in new and different ways.

What brought you to Narrative Medicine?

I had a personal health experience. It was very difficult and bewildering. My internist suggested that I write about what was happening. And I said, "What purpose could that possibly serve?" But I did it anyway. I wrote an essay about my experience, and ultimately I published it in the journal Creative Nonfiction years later. But the act of writing it itself was really revelatory to me. My understanding of what was happening to me changed through the act of writing about it. It was a very heuristic process.

I started to read the books of Dr. Atul Gawande but also memoirs by patients and health care practitioners. Health and health care is a subject that concerns all of us.

Can you give me an example of the texts or works that you examine in the class you teach, Accounts of Self?

We read Sebald’s Austerlitz. We read Alison Bechdel's Fun Home. She's really unpacking so expertly in all of her work the process of trying to understand her own past and her family's past. She never purports to have any single, univocal account of meaning for her family. She doesn't even know for sure whether her father's death was a suicide or not. So she thematizes the uncertainty of memory and understanding in the account itself. She's also asking, "Do I have the right to tell my father's story? Am I just trying to imagine him as the hero, or myself as the hero?"

It's not like a book club where you say, "Well, I liked or disliked this character." It's, "How did the book affect you?" We're interested in the act of reading and the act of listening.

Is there anything else that you wanted to mention about Narrative Medicine or your class or your career that I didn't ask about?

In bioethics, as in narrative medicine, bringing in the tools of literary and film analysis is significant. That's the way most people think about these issues. If you stop someone in the street and ask them what they think of genetic engineering, they're going to talk about the film Gattaca. And that's interdisciplinary, too: Hollywood and the medical establishment. All these different discourses come together in really interesting ways and can learn from one another.