I recently sat with a group of residents and students to discuss two fictional short stories that are classics in the medical humanities: The Use of Force by William Carlos Williams (1938) and Brute by Richard Selzer (1982). Both stories are difficult and violent.
In The Use of Force Williams tells the story of a home visit to see a sick child. The doctor must examine the child’s throat because he fears the child has diphtheria. Things do not go well. He tries to cajole the child and to enlist the help of the parents. The child resists and the parents are reluctant to force the child to cooperate. The doctor’s thoughts are transparent to the reader: he despises the parents for their weakness, admires the child for her strength and tenacity, and eventually loses his temper. “In a final unreasoning assault, I overpowered the child’s neck and jaws.” The doctor sees the tell-tale membranous discharge in the throat, thus sealing the diagnosis.
In Brute, Selzer tells the story of a man brought to the emergency room in the middle of the night, roaring drunk and handcuffed. He has a deep gash across his forehead. The man is powerful and fights the doctor’s attempts to repair the cut. The doctor and patient are alone in the room, and the reader is privy to the doctor’s anger and exhaustion. In frustration, he finally grabs two large sutures and sews the man’s earlobes to the mattress. “I have sewn your ears to the stretcher,” I tell him. “Move, and you’ll rip ‘em off.” Along the way, the doctor-narrator tells us of his rage.
My discussion group reflected on the stories in ways I did not expect. To continue reading, click here.