Illness narratives: reliability, authenticity and the empathic witness

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Abstract

Several scholarly trends, such as narrative medicine, patient-centered and relationship-centered care, have long advocated for the value of the patient's voice in the practice of medicine. As theories of textual analysis are applied to the understanding of stories of illness, doctors and scholars have the opportunity to develop more nuanced and multifaceted appreciation for these accounts. We realize, for example, that a patient's story is rarely “just a story,” but is rather the conscious and unconscious representation and performance of intricate personal motives and dominant meta-narrative influences. Overall, this complexifying of narrative is beneficial as it reduces readers' and listeners' naïve assumptions about reliability and authenticity. However, the growing body of scholarship contesting various aspects of personal narratives may have the unintended effect of de-legitimizing the patient's voice because of concerns regarding its trustworthiness. Further, the academy's recent focus on transgressive, boundary-violating counternarratives, while meant to right the balance of what constitutes acceptable, even valuable stories in medicine, may inadvertently trivialize more conventional, conformist stories as inauthentic. While acknowledging the not inconsiderable pitfalls awaiting the interpreter of illness narratives, I argue that ultimately, physicians and scholars should approach patient stories with an attitude of narrative humility, despite inevitable limits on reliability and authenticity. While critical inquiry is an essential part of both good clinical practice and scholarship, first and foremost both types of professionals should respect that patients tell the stories they need to tell.

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