Illness as a Human Story

cover of book

By Amy Ratto-Parks

At the beginning of Susan Sontag's classic text, Illness as Metaphor, she writes, "Illness is the night-side of life, a more onerous citizenship. Everyone who is born holds dual citizenship, in the kingdom of the well and in the kingdom of the sick. Although we all prefer to use only the good passport, sooner or later, each of us is obliged, at least for a spell, to identify as citizens of that other place". Due to acute and chronic health issues, some of us have long struggled with our own citizenship in the; "night-side" of life Sontag describes. But these days, the entire world is being forces into deep study on what it means to be ill.

I'm fascinated by the two covers that appear on the different editions Sontag's word. The yellow cover, (1978) shows the engraving of Hercules Combating the Hydra by Andrea Mantegna (1490), which tells the story of Hercules fighting the mythical water snake who has nine heads, one of which is immortal. The green cover (1988) shows a microscopy photo of a virus taken by Dennis Kunkel.

cover of book

Although these editions were released by two different publishers, I'm curious about the story each tells about how we understand and experience illness. One tells a clinical story and shows us a picture of the thing that can hurt us - the thing that is, to the naked eye, invisible. The other cover tells us an emotional, heroic story of the experience of illness; from the expression on Hercules' face we can see panic and fear, but from his body language and the impending swing of his arm, we can also see strength. As we all learn to "identify as citizens" of the "night-side of life" I hope we remember that illness is always a human story - and I hope we can remember to listen to all the ways that story can be told.