First-Person Writing, Four-Way Reading was a three-day interdisciplinary research conference run by the European Science Foundation and Birkbeck College in December 2011. The conference combined four disciplinary perspectives on ‘first-person writing’: literature, history, medical humanities & ethnography. Presentations are now available from the conference web site, including my paper “Schizophrenia Bulletin’s First Person Accounts: Rethinking ‘Patient Testimony’ in the Medical Humanities.”


Sandy Jeffs · April 3, 2012 at 11:21 pm

I read your piece Angela: ‘Schizophrenia Bulletin’s First Person Accounts: Rethinking ‘patient testimony’ in the medical humanities.’ As you know I have been someone giving a first person account for a long time to a wide range of audiences. And of course have written my memoir which is (a) story of my life. My book does follow conventional realism: it is linear in time and respects conventional expectations of story telling. You make this important point about such narratives. Mine is no different and given that some of my story is about the disorganisation of schizophrenia you might expect some disorganisation in the story. But then such a book might not be published. I had an editor working with me as well. I often wonder how I might have told my story differently and there are things I would change and emphasise if I rewrote it today. But what of the first person account? I always ask myself: why do I stand in front of an audience and disembowel myself? And I used to think I knew why I did it. You make an argument to see these testimonies in a more complex way, perhaps more complex than the person them self intended or is aware of. Others make of the testimoy what they are compelled to, by their own agendas. Like any narrative, whether spoken or written, like any work of art, they are open to interpretation by the listener and reader who brings with them a set of political and social beliefs. My intention may even be irrelevant to the listener’s/reader’s intentions. The simple telling of a story is so much more when the lens shifts and distorts. I sometimes wish I was more political and a much more radical activist in my writing and speaking but I’m not. I see the world through a poet’s eyes and try to share that view when I speak and write. So, what value is my story. My book isn’t about recovery, or the happy ending, it is about ongoing struggle. It isn’t a tirade against psychiatry though it is still critical of aspects of it, but I have some time for elements of psychiatry. I would certainly be more critical of drugs than I was. You ask about schizophrenia writing: is it recovery writing, illness narrtaive, or survivor testimony? Maybe in writing our stories there are unintended consequences and unintended messages given in the narrative. Other times we are conscious of what we are trying to do. I am more unsure of what I am to do in front of an audience than ever before. And of what to write when I think about my story. That is perhaps why I have gone back to poetry.

Angela Woods · April 4, 2012 at 9:41 am

Thanks so much Sandy for sharing your thoughts on my paper and on some aspects of writing Flying with Paper Wings: Reflections on Living with Madness (see I think you’re right to question the academic propensity to over-read, or over-complicate, people’s life stories – or, indeed, to treat things like Schizophrenia Bulletin’s ‘First Person Accounts’ as just another set of texts. Arthur Frank’s distinction between ‘story analysts’ and ‘story tellers’ comes to mind here. He takes a view of story-telling as fundamentally relational, and writes that “Storytellers do not call for their narratives to be analyzed; they call for other stories in which experiences are shared, commonalties discovered, and relationships built.” It would be really interesting to find out more about the kinds of relationships that spring from acts of storytelling – relationships between writers and readers both known and new – especially when, as you say, the story of one’s life is constantly changing and evolving.

Leave a Reply

Avatar placeholder

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

%d bloggers like this: