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Maura Spiegel Facilitates Personal & Medical Insights Through Literature

March 8, 2016 - Boston, MA

Maura Spiegel, a Founding Director at
the Center for Narrative Practice, was
steeped in the connection of literature, the humanities, and medicine alongside Dr. Rita Charon before the term narrative medicine even existed.

“I first heard the term Narrative Medicine right about the time Rita Charon came up with it, says Maura. “Dr. Charon and I were editing Literature and Medicine [Johns Hopkins University Press] and a lot of the work coming into the journal was either from literary scholars exploring medical themes in texts in interesting ways, or doctors diagnosing the diseases of fictional characters. But a small number of academics and clinicians were doing something a bit different.  I recall some remarkable pieces...” Maura described one piece in particular, “It was about Kafka’s story The Country Doctor, which led the clinician to reflect on the ethical conundrum of how to set limits as a doctor.  The piece asked the question, how can I say when my work is done, when I have done enough? This piece, among others, was pressing in a new direction; it wasn’t traditional literature and medicine and it wasn’t medical humanities.  This article was thinking about the delivery of care through literature.

Recognizing that a new kind of engagement with narrative was happening, Rita Charon coined the term, narrative medicine, a practice that Maura says facilitates “being drawn into an act of critical perception; though the close reading of a literary text you engage your own story.”

What that means in the real world can be seen in the examples of light-bulb moments that people who have worked with Maura in a narrative practice capacity have experienced. “One of our doctors in narrative medicine class had a sudden realization following a discussion of Virginia Woolf’s, To the Lighthouse:  He said, 'I’ve had a patient for twenty years whose visits I've consistently I've dreaded. I just realized that if I behave differently toward him, he will behave differently toward me!’”  And this realization came by way of Virginia Woolf's novel! "It was a process that brought him to that insight.  No short cut would have worked to get him there," Maura says.  “It was such an honest, deep recognition, says Spiegel. “It was beautiful.: There are a lot of moments like that. "People have told me over the years that this work has made them better parents. That’s pretty rewarding.”

As one of four Founding Directors of the Center for Narrative Practice, Maura says they try to practice what they preach. “The idea [behind the Center] is that we’re partners and that we want to work in a way that isn’t poisoned by certain kinds of institutional nonsense and bureaucracy. For me, it’s always been an ideal to create a space where people have an equal voice and where everyone's first priority is doing great work together.

Alongside shaping the direction of the center, Maura teaches in the certificate program and in weekend workshops, where she’ll next be presenting a session on The Narrative Turn.

Maura says of her methods, “I look for that texts (novels and stories) that, in their way of telling, confront you with the questions about what complicates the act of telling --and what obligations are belong to the receiver of someone's story.  In some instances, Maura says, “the text is opening up a relationship that is not conventional, familiar, or comfortable (Dostoyevsky's Underground Man, comes to mind)- but one that draws you into problems of representation and language and identity. Who is speaking? To whom?  What is at stake in the telling?  

Maura speaks of the analytical side of working with a text or a film, but equally points to the emotional side of it. “You show somebody a beautiful poem or a painting or film that’s powerful or true and something expands in them. When people are opened up by, or moved by something - they speak from a different part of themselves and sometimes with words they don't usually use.”

This semi-miraculous deepening of connection happens in many classes and groups, sometimes despite a participant’s resistance to it. Maura remembers one such medical student from the past. “For whatever reason he was resistant the whole time - but thankfully he was the only one and his negative attitude didn’t influence the group.  Most students love the feeling of growing and this work gives people a sense of internal growth.”

So what makes someone ready for a Narrative Practice workshop? “It’s like the old lightbulb joke, Maura says."How many therapy patients does it take to screw in a light bulb?  Only one, but they have to really want to change."

Maura Spiegel is Senior Lecturer of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University and Barnard College, where she teaches courses on fiction and film, and is a founder and Associate Director of the Program in Narrative Medicine.


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