Thinking About the Poor   /   Fall 2014   /    Notes And Comments

Post-Prozac Pathography

Joseph E. Davis

Don’t worry, everything is going to be amazing, by Terence Chisolm; flickr.

The tell-all pathography.

Another “pathography” has recently appeared on the bestseller lists. No, it’s not the Kitty Kelley-style of biography that aims to demean its subject. The motifs of such books, according to the writer Joyce Carol Oates, who dubbed them pathographies, “are dysfunction and disaster, illnesses and pratfalls, failed marriages and failed careers, alcoholism and breakdowns and outrageous conduct.” The bestseller in this instance—Scott Stossel’s My Age of Anxiety—belongs to that genre of pathography written (usually) by sufferers themselves, in their own voices, reflecting on their illnesses and their efforts to get well, a genre that during the last two decades has included such bestsellers as Gilda Radner’s It’s Always Something, William Styron’s Darkness Visible, Susanna Kaysen’s Girl, Interrupted, Elizabeth Wurtzel’s Prozac Nation, Kay Redfield Jamison’s An Unquiet Mind, and Andrew Solomon’s The Noonday Demon.

Such first-person accounts need to be distinguished from two other popular genres that have also been called pathographies. One is the case history, a description of patient illness or disease written by a doctor or other professional. Hippocrates introduced this ancient form, and the term pathography originally had this meaning. The fascinating books of Oliver Sacks, such as The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, are contemporary examples. The second genre is psychobiographies, which are psychological studies of the lives of notable people. Sigmund Freud’s Leonardo da Vinci and a Memory of His Childhood, which Freud referred to as a pathography, is a classic of this type. But accounts written by patients themselves are a literary form of their own, reflecting in their changing styles important cultural norms and values, social expectations and attitudes toward medicine.

To read the full article online, please login to your account or subscribe to our digital edition ($25 yearly). Prefer print? Order back issues or subscribe to our print edition ($30 yearly).