Medicine, Myth, Fairytale: On Joanna Pearson’s Every Human Love

Lauren A. Mitchell //      On the phone, Dr. Joanna Pearson softly chuckles. “My brother sometimes asks me what ‘psychiatrist Joanna’ would ask ‘author Joanna.’” It has been a while since we’ve spoken, but she is warm and upbeat, as I have known her to be. We are discussing her new short story collection, Every Human Love, due out on May 15 from Acre Press. This is Pearson’s third book, standing alongside her 2011 young adult novel, The Rites and Wrongs of Janice Wills, and her critically acclaimed poetry collection, Oldest Mortal Myth (2012), which can only be described as “pristine.”

Every Human Love and Oldest Mortal Myth create compelling partnerships between medicine and myth. Both works slide between contemporary voices, reflections of medical school and residency, and new visions of Greek mythology and fairytales. But when I say that they evoke “fairytales” and “myths,” I do not mean the sanitized, Disneyfied versions of these old stories. I mean the originals; the ones that are harrowing and violent. Pearson’s stories contain similarities to Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber (though her prose is far more spare and direct) and Carmen Maria Machado’s re-tellings of urban legends in Her Bodies and Other Parties.  With that said, followers of Pearson’s writing won’t be able to help but notice that Every Human Love takes a distinctly darker turn than her previous two works—though that is not a bad thing. This collection is as much a fantastical reflection on her days of residency in gritty Baltimore, Maryland as it is a work of fiction.

I have been lucky to know Dr. Pearson for the past ten or so years outside of her role as an author, which has granted me the privilege of having early view of her work, and, perhaps, of seeing “her” in her writing. Like many literary critics, I bristle against readings that insist on bringing authors into their own texts. At the same time, there is a certain pleasure in mapping her voice, because I can. Her upbringing in rural North Carolina (where I have visited on her behalf) and her love of Flannery O’Connor informs the descriptions of farms, county fairs and what she calls in our conversation the “god-haunted, rugged land, where storytelling has a long tradition.” It is part of this tradition that constructs an eeriness into which medicine and caregiving interject.

Every Human Love is breathlessly stunning, in the sense that it is beautiful writing, but also in that it is profoundly unsettling. The fourteen stories in collection demand rests between one and the next in order to absorb the various uncanny landscapes: raw urban cities, the alleys of clinics and hospitals, Gothic southern farms and highways, “the woods” and the things hiding in them,  and delirious “post-partum fever dream-ghost stories” (her description). These places all serve as a backdrop for narratives that obliquely address medical care, a kind of processing from Pearson’s days in residency. She says, “The time of writing those stories was just the right amount of distance from that experience—maybe about a couple of years out. A similar amount of time as when James Joyce starting writing about Ireland from Italy.”

I note in our conversation that medical narratives in her work often cause a distortion in the myths and fairytales she represents. Caregiving, in this collection, is interpolated through the already-bizarre and often disturbing aspects of the original tales, which may be recognizable to many readers as they move through her work. In Oldest Mortal Myth, myth and medicine were separated into different sections of the book, yet their placement in the same manuscript, alongside poems written from the perspective of sideshow performers and attractions, drew a relationship between hospitals and underworlds. The poetry collection eventually labels the titular oldest mortal myth as “of permanence through words” (Anatomy, 60).

If language is ephemeral, what does that do to our stories? Our memories?

I ask Pearson if that is how she approaches myth in Every Human Love. She pauses a moment, then comments, “I am often better at explaining thoughts through story. I use myth and fairytale to give a narrative shape when the ideas might otherwise strain chronological fact-making. And I have an appetite for the mystery they offer, but not always a capacity for it [in my own life]. When I read, it is for a tradition that makes sense of mystery.”

Such “mystery” is relevant to her role as a psychiatrist, particularly at the early point of her career that appears so much in Every Human Love. She comments that when she was in residency, her writing habits endured somewhat of a shift. “I was uncomfortable taking down things out of my clinical experiences to make a fiction out of them, even if they were de-identified. But I do think there are ethical ways of writing such stories, and you especially see them in different kinds of non-fiction medical writing.” She admits that the back-to-back waves of residency and motherhood marked “a molding process” in who she has become, and therefore her writing voice, through “the time and intensity of so many experiences.”

As many clinicians will confirm, all of this swirling intensity of developing an identity as a physician, let alone as as a parent, makes for an almost-digestive process of who you once were, to who you become. The melancholy and disturbing notes of Every Human Love, to me, emphasize this process and its confusion, and the need to have stories in order to create an order to them. Many communities who strive to offer medicine a narrative apparatus, such as in the burgeoning field of Narrative Medicine or in the “doctor’s stories” genre, tend to offer a kind of reverence to caregiving. They emphasize narratives of compassion, sometimes of burn-out, and are often linear, realistic, recognizable. They are human narratives.

So what happens when humanity is reflected through the alienating mirror of exhaustion, chronic illness, poverty, threats of violence, and anxiety? What happens when the object of medical narratives are, in Pearson’s words, “operating off the space of imagination,” and such an imagination is drawn to a heritage of bizarre storylines?

It is actually the discomfort in these stories that makes them the most realistic medical stories, even when we see in them a Rumplestiltskin or a ghost story or something that looks like fantasy. Pearson’s use of mythology takes the focus off of the narratives of individual patients that are haunting her—an issue that is identifiable to many of us who continue to carry the melancholy baggage of acute caregiving. The template of fairytales and myths are more universal to readers; they provide a baseline understanding of certain uncomfortable emotional realities that are brought to the surface when a provider’s identity is sublimated by a litany of small traumas of their own and others.

In that, Every Human Love may offer the best “magic mirror” of doctor narratives that we may be able to find.

Look forward to Every Human Love, coming to readers 5/15

You can purchase Oldest Mortal Myth (Storyline Press, 2012) here.

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