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Nellie Hermann on Anne Boyer's "The Undying" and the Limitations of the Illness Narrative

In her recently published review of The Undying by poet and essayist Anne Boyer, author and Narrative Medicine lecturer Nellie Hermann explores the ways in which the Pulitzer Prize-winning memoir resists the familiar conventions of the illness narrative.

Appearing in the Nov. 5 issue of The New York Review of Books, Hermann’s article, Cancer Under Capitalism, characterizes Boyer’s book as less of a memoir of surviving breast cancer than a manifesto written by a Marxist feminist whose aim is “to explore breast cancer as comprehensively as possible: as a disease, as a historical entity, as a means of exposing the precarity of the individual inside larger capitalist systems.”

The book is "made up of varied short sections, including philosophy, examinations of statistics, thought experiments, brief pieces that resemble prose poems, ancient texts, recent scientific studies, and even a few illustrations." Ultimately, writes Hermann—who is also Creative Director, CUIMC Division of Narrative Medicine, and a co-author of The Principles and Practice of Narrative Medicine—Boyer’s account deliberately resists the typical narrative types found in memoir to buck the myth of singularity and fully expose the complex system of cancer: "The Undying is slippery and elusive in its very form, and you come away feeling that the book itself encapsulates the frustration with the inadequacies of our existing modes for tackling anything of this size.”

Read the full review and learn more about the Narrative Medicine program.