Chronicles of chronic pain | Lit Feature | Chicago Reader

Chronicles of chronic pain 

At Northwestern, writers Laurie Edwards, S.L. Wisenberg, Paula Kamen, and Jenni Prokopy discuss a burgeoning genre: "chronic lit."

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Jenni Prokopy, Paula Kamen, S.L. Wisenberg

Jenni Prokopy, Paula Kamen, S.L. Wisenberg

Elizabeth McQuern/Jim Newberry/Adine Sagalyn

The writer Paula Kamen has had a constant, mostly medium-grade headache for 22 years. In 2005 she published All in My Head, a memoir about her efforts to make it go away and about how she learned, eventually, to deal with the constant pain. The process of creating the book, she says, introduced her to a community of people grappling with the same issues.

More of them are also writing about it, enough to support a burgeoning literary movement. "It's not kitschy, and it's not self-help," says Stacy Oliver, the assistant director of Northwestern's Center for the Writing Arts. "What captivates me is that it's not 'Oh, poor me,' but usually 'It's fascinating what's happening to me . . . what is happening to me?'"

Oliver, who also suffers from a chronic illness invisible to the casual observer, decided to introduce "chronic lit" to her students and the general population with "The Chronic Question," a panel discussion featuring Kamen; Laurie Edwards, author of In the Kingdom of the Sick: A Social History of Chronic Illness in America; and S. L. Wisenberg, author of the blog Cancer Bitch and the book The Adventures of Cancer Bitch, both about her experiences with breast cancer (she's also a past Reader contributor). Jenni Prokopy, creator of the blog Chronic Babe, moderates.

It's no coincidence that all four panelists are women. Women, Kamen says, are more likely than men to suffer from chronic pain and fatigue. "There's a stigma, especially if you have a problem that's invisible. You have the medical establishment telling you it's psychosomatic and American culture telling you that it will go away if you change your attitude and behavior. There are all these forces telling you to be quiet. But this new generation of women is more open about things. You can't cure chronic illness, but you can cure unnecessary suffering and guilt [from hiding it]."

The four panelists have a variety of styles and experiences. Edwards is a historian, while Prokopy's Chronic Babe offers support and encouragement for its readers to, as she writes, "have amazing lives." Kamen and Wisenberg are more prone to black humor; at one reading, Wisenberg, who had a mastectomy, showed off her artificial nipple, which cost her $45 out-of-pocket because it wasn't covered by insurance.

Many chronic illnesses are so rare that there's been very little research done on their causes or cures. Documenting what it's like to live with these conditions day to day, the writers speaking at "The Chronic Question" force their readers, even the healthy ones, to empathize.

"I don't have cancer [like Wisenberg]," says Oliver, "but I understand her journey. She has a bit about how a hospital gown never fits, and I think, 'I've been there wearing that gown, I get it.'"

Oliver hopes to make "The Chronic Question" an annual event, featuring a different demographic every year. "This is just the tip of the iceberg, I hope," she says. "It's a fascinating genre that's starting to emerge. We're not alone. We all have something."

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