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medical humanities

The Reading Room: A review of James Rhodes’ ‘Instrumental’

2 Sep, 15 | by cquigley


Instrumental by James Rhodes

Canongate Books, 2015. £16.99 hardcover, £14.99 E-Book

Reviewed by Vivek Santayana, Postgraduate student in Literature and Modernity, The University of Edinburgh


James Rhodes’s controversial memoir, Instrumental, is about many things. On the one hand, it is about the trauma of child rape. There is an ethical dimension to the way this book talks about the trauma of child rape, suggested by its use of an epigram from US Marine Corps veteran Phil Klay about honouring stories of victims. This memoir is, in some respects, about a victim of severe trauma speaking out about his experience. Rhodes describes, with terrifying candour, his lifelong struggle of dealing with the catastrophic events of his childhood and the self-destructive state of victimhood the experience left him with for almost all of his life.

On the other hand, as Rhodes emphasises in the preface (and in his interview on Newsnight on 20 May), this is also a book about the power of music, and is intended to serve as a rejoinder to the bastardisation of the classical music industry. Supplementing this is a playlist of the many pieces discussed in the book, available free on Spotify ( Woven through this discussion of music is the harrowing story of Rhodes’ life, which he sees as the ultimate example of the profound and transformative impact music can have on one’s life, and how artistic expression gave him both the hope and the means for coping. Instrumental is nevertheless deeply complex, not just because of the difficult and painful main subject matter, but also because it challenges the expectations that might arise from classifying the book as either about trauma or music. What made this book particularly challenging for me was how rapidly it alternates between both of these narratives. This is a personal account of Rhodes’s life, and the sudden shifts in tone and texture serve to emphasise that the traumas of his past and his musical career are equal and contiguous parts of his life. There can be no clear demarcation between the one and the other, both in narrative and in practice.

Reading this book, it is important to bear in mind the context in which it has appeared in print. Publication came after a protracted legal battle between Rhodes and his ex-wife that lasted over a year, ending in May 2015 with the Supreme Court overturning the Court of Appeal’s decision to grant a temporary injunction on publication. It is open to interpretation whether or not Rhodes’s insistence that this is a book about music is in some ways an attempt at negotiating this censorious legal climate. However, even with the greatest of sensitivity to the parties involved and the greatest of care for their security and privacy, there is a sense in which preventing Rhodes from telling his story would in some ways be a repetition of the same attitude of secrecy and shame through which victims of abuse are silenced, much as Rhodes himself was when he was a child. Rhodes’ voice, when telling the story of his abuse, is inflected by these circumstances.

While he states quite passionately that music is what saved his life, there is a sense in which this is not an entirely accurate conclusion to draw from the story that Rhodes presents. He describes in great detail his experience of abuse, and subsequently his struggle with the self-destructive cycle of victimhood, self-harm, depression, breakdowns, suicide attempts, drug abuse, alcoholism and dysfunctional relationships. He elaborates on what he considers the numerous symptoms of chronic sexual abuse – OCD, dissociation, visual and auditory hallucinations, hypervigilance and eating disorders – as well as the painful process of his treatment through reparative surgery, forcible institutionalisation, therapy and, of course, music, which is one of the more significant contributing factors to healing. Music gave Rhodes something positive to aspire towards, as well as a sense of security and achievement that comes with a rigorous regime of practice and successful performances. Many of the experiences he describes, like the first time he heard Bach’s Chaconne from the Partita for Violin No. 2 transcribed for the piano by Ferruccio Busoni (36), the sense of comfort and security he felt when sitting at a keyboard the first time he performed live (113), the ‘spiritual epiphany’ he experienced when he smuggled an iPod into a psychiatric ward and listened to Bach under the sheets (133), as well as his experience of recording his first album (163), exemplify the transcendental power of music to heal. Rhodes claims that ‘creativity is… one of the most profound ways through trauma’ (225). However, despite his passion for music, there were times when his career as a musician, and the pressures and frustrations involved therein, only served to aggravate his condition. The transcendence and escape afforded by music were temporary, and he ultimately imploded again in a similar manner to before.

In addition to music, there were numerous other factors that contributed to Rhodes’ on going recovery, the most important being the birth of his son. Moreover, while he is quite scathing about mental health facilities in Britain (which he describes through allusions to Ken Kesey’s One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest in terms of their lack of empathy and their over-reliance on medication), it is clear that the private facility that he went to in Arizona, with its emphasis on therapy and support groups, was also vital for his treatment. Similarly, the relationships he formed with his son, manager, new partner and some of his closest friends, and their kindness and generosity in his time of need, were crucial to his recovery. While music did have a profound impact on Rhodes’ life, and while creative expression is a powerful mode of therapy, he is circumspect about claiming it as his sole miraculous, transformative force, and emphasises that music is one of many things in his life, along with psychiatric treatment, medication and support and empathy within a broader community, that are part of his ongoing recovery.

Rhodes’ narrative is conscious of its chaotic nature and sense of artifice. This is most strikingly observed in the preface, where Rhodes imagines the morning in which he writes the book as if it were a play in which he, quite graphically, commits suicide, leaving a shocking note to his partner (xvi-xviii). Interspersed within the memoir are a number of self-referential remarks that emphasise his awareness of how the story is an attempt to structure his experience into a coherent narrative. The narrative voice frequently vacillates between suffering and joy, such as when a sublime experience of listening to Bach in a psychiatric ward is juxtaposed with a botched suicide attempt, or when graphic descriptions of self-harming are followed immediately by lyrical descriptions of music. In the most unexpected of moments, the narrative is laced with a bleak sense of humour. The texture of this narrative, with its uneven tone and the sudden, drastic changes in mood, are especially important in the way they embody the disordered nature of Rhodes’ experience.

It is tempting to romanticise the notions of mental illness and suffering and see them as intertwined with creative expression. I found one of Rhodes’ remarks quite troubling, when he states in the context of Robert Schumann that ‘composers and mental illness go hand in hand’ (193), although it is quite probable that this is meant to be ironic. Evan Davis, when he recently introduced Rhodes on Newsnight, made a similar connection between suffering and musical talent, describing Rhodes as having a ‘tormented soul’ that ‘comes out in his music’. The notion that mental illness is in some way constitutive of genius ­– that it gives access to some heightened state of aesthetic sensitivity – is a dangerous oversimplification of the experience of mental illness. However, Rhodes’ narrative complicates this romantic image of the tortured genius. His celebration of composers’ lives and works is contrasted by the self-deprecating tone that he adopts while describing his own struggles when attempting to make music. Rather than depict his suffering as eventually culminating in his musical talent, he describes his experience exactly as it is, and instead suggests that music is a way of healing. When he discusses the lives of various composers, he does so to emphasise how music can be a source of hope when dealing with trauma and pain. While talking about his own life, Rhodes avoids the romanticised notion that all artists are tortured individuals, or conversely that all suffering leads to artistic excellence, and his attitude towards art and music needs to be considered in this light.

As promised in the preface, Instrumental does indeed contain a strong and broad focus on music. The later chapters are a scathing criticism of the Classical BRIT Awards, the snobbery of the gatekeepers of high culture and the dumbing down of the music. It also describes Rhodes’ ambition to start a new record label as part of a campaign to broaden access to classical music, to improve music education and to reverse the tide of the decline he describes. His story of dealing with the trauma of child rape becomes part of this argument, demonstrating the profound impact music can have on one’s life and why it is of paramount importance to save it. His campaign to change the music industry is as significant to his career as the trauma he suffered as a child. This goes to show that Rhodes’ life story, and the way he writes about it in his memoir, is about much more than just giving voice to a traumatic experience, as he shares his experience of being able to live through the trauma and of finding a positive and lasting outlet for his creativity.



Rhodes, James. Instrumental: a Memoir of Madness, Medication and Music. Edinburgh: Canongate, 2015.

—. Interview by Evan Davis. Newsnight. BBC, London: 20 May 2015. Television.

The Reading Room: ePatients Conference, Queen’s University Belfast

12 Aug, 15 | by cquigley



The Medical, Ethical and Legal Repercussions of Blogging and

Micro-Blogging Experiences of Illness and Disease


Institute for Collaborative Research in the Humanities

Queen’s University Belfast, 11-12 September 2015

The provisional programme for this conference is now available:

Friday 11th September

11.00 – 11.30         Registration

11.30 – 11.45          Welcome

11.45 – 12.45          Keynote 1:

                                      Anne-Marie Cunningham (Cardiff University)

                                    Learning with and from epatients

1.45 – 3.45               Panel 1:

                                      Chair: Nathan Emmerich (QUB)

Amy Brown (SUNY Upstate Medical University, Syracuse, New York): Grounding the Relationship Between Families and Physicians in a Digital Community: A Case Study

Columba Quigley (Reading Room Editor, Medical Humanities): The ePatient and Stories of Illness

Kristen Larson (Duke University): Autopathography and Online Community: Applying Biovalue to Understand the Lisa Adams Controversy

Yewande Okuleye (University of Leicester): You call it Marijuana and I call it Medical Cannabis: Online Identity Construction and Illness Narratives from the epatient/activist Perspective.

4.00 – 5.40              Panel 2:

                                       Chair: Pascal McKeown (QUB)

Maggie Bennett and Deborah Coleman (QUB): Cultivating Compassion through Analysis of Online Patient Narratives

Sylvia Hübel (Interfaculty Centre for Biomedical Ethics and Law, University of Leuven, Belgium): IVF Blogs and Online Forums as Sites of Patient Empowerment and Moral Agency

Angela Kennedy (independent researcher): Power and Conflict between Doctors and Patients: the Case of the ME Community

5.45                            Drinks Reception, The Naughton Gallery

7.00                           Conference Dinner, Deanes at Queen’s

Saturday 12th September

 10.15 – 11.45          Panel 3:

                                      Chair: Paul Murphy (QUB)

Rebecca J. Hogue (University of Ottawa, Canada): Cancer Blogging – A Survivor’s Story

Marie Ennis-O’Connor (Digital Media Strategist and Health Blogger): Connecting and Protecting: The Benefits and Pitfalls of Online Disclosure

Anne Lawlor (22q11 Ireland Support Group): Social Media as a Virtual Lifeline: A Support-Group Perspective of the Issues

12.00 – 1.00             Keynote 2:

                                     Julia Kennedy (Falmouth University)

                                     In Our Blood: Mapping Multiple Narrative Accounts of Leukaemia Online

 1.45 – 3.15               Panel 4:

Victoria Betton (University of Leeds and mHealthHabitat programme director (NHS)): Mental Health Discourses in Social Networking Sites

Ida Milne (QUB): A Rash of Reaction: the e-parent and the 2015 Measles Epidemics

Sally Burch (Patient Blogger at “Just ME”): The Use of Patient Blogs as a Care Resource


The deadline for registration is August 14, 2015.

Further information can be found here:

The Reading Room: Upcoming workshop on ageing

12 May, 15 | by cquigley


Medical Humanities and Ageing, 29/06/2015


An initiative of the CHCI Medical Humanities Network Program, funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation through the Consortium of Humanities Centers and Institutes (CHCI)

Old Committee Room, King’s Building, King’s College London, Strand Campus, Strand, London WC2R 2LSDate: Monday 29th June 2015

The Centre for the Humanities and Health, King’s College London, would like to invite you to our second workshop on medical humanities and ageing. We are one of the six CHCI member centres and institutes working on a project to further the development of medical humanities as a subject of study: each partnering centre conducts specific research on ageing, undergirded by collaborative reflection on issues of evidence, value, and evaluation.


10:00 – 10.30: Welcome

10:30 – 11:30: Panel: Reflections on Old Age

Dr Claire Hilton, Sauerkraut and African Violets: the Art of Old Age Psychiatry

Dr Elizabeth Barry, ‘Narrower and Narrower would her Bed Be’: Woolf, Beauvoir and the Change of Life

11:30 – 12:00: Coffee break

12:00 – 13:00: Panel: Stories from the End of Life

Dr Columba Quigley, How We Die: Palliative Care and an Ageing Society

Dr Maria Vaccarella, Narrating Decay

13:00 – 13:30: Concluding remarks

Seating is limited, so if you would like to attend, please contact Dr Maria Vaccarella ( by Monday 15th June 2015


Review: “Contested Spaces: Abortion Clinics, Women’s Shelters and Hospitals.”

28 Apr, 14 | by gbelam

We have another great review today, of Lori A Brown’s book “Contested Spaces: Abortion Clinics, Women’s Shelters and Hospitals.” It’s by Sophie Jones of Birkbeck College, University of London, and considers aspects of architecture, landscape & design, and wider ideas about feminism and attitudes to women’s health in the USA.  Looks like a fascinating area for discussion. 

– Georgia Belam


Review: “Contested Spaces: abortion clinics, women’s shelters and hospitals.” by Lori A Brown

By Sophie Jones


‘Is it possible to build non-sexist neighborhoods and design non-sexist cities? What would they be like?’[1] Posing these questions in 1980, Dolores Hayden vocalized the utopian impulse of feminist architecture. A generation of women architects were convinced that Hayden’s question had an affirmative answer. Their plans for housing complexes with integrated childcare centres and cooperatively-run kitchens were not merely isolated amendments to the world as they knew it, but blueprints for a materialist feminist revolution. In Contested Spaces: Abortion Clinics, Women’s Shelters and Hospitals, Lori A. Brown brings this heritage of feminist architecture to bear on contemporary approaches to these charged sites. Brown asserts, ‘Space matters. Space is at stake. Control over geography is being legislated by those who want to eliminate a woman’s right for reproductive choice.’[2] Her proposals, which include bullet-resistant windows and abortion clinics in shopping malls, bespeak a different political climate: these are constrained negotiations, not revolutionary demands.


Brown’s research into the spatial politics of abortion clinics—and, to a lesser extent, women’s shelters and hospitals—is primarily focused on the United States, with some comparative analysis of Canada and Mexico. The author, an architect based at Syracuse School of Architecture, announces her project as a dual intervention, correcting her discipline’s lack of social engagement while drawing public attention to the feminist politics of the built environment. Debates about abortion often prioritise the subject of time, dwelling on the abstract question of when the foetus acquires a right to life. Contested Spaces marks a welcome turn to the spatial, as growing numbers of women across North America face harassment outside clinic doors, if and when they manage the long, expensive journey to their nearest abortion provider. Brown has transformed these hostile landscapes into diagrams punctuated by sobering statistics. On one map, a stark black line represents a 404 mile journey across South Dakota to the only clinic in Sioux Falls—a route served by no public transportation.


The book, which Brown positions ‘somewhere between theory and practice’, is concerned not only with the siting, accessibility and security of buildings, but also with the way architecture manifests social antagonisms.[3] This approach makes sense, but the abrupt shifts between registers are telling. A section about Dr. George Tiller, the Kansas abortion provider shot to death by a terrorist in 2009, segues awkwardly into a recommendation that clinics install meditation rooms for quiet reflection. The story of Paulina del Carmen Ramírez Jacinto, who was refused an abortion at the age of 13 after being raped during a break-in at her family home in Baja California, is followed by a consideration of the importance of lighting and paint choices in reproductive healthcare facilities. Noting the disjunction here is not a matter of policing the boundary between the serious and the trivial. Rather, it is to pay attention to the conditions that interrupt feminist blueprints for the future before they become reality.


Women, as Contested Spaces demonstrates, have historically found ways to repurpose structures designed to enclose them. In the 1960s and early 1970s, California’s Army of Three and Chicago’s Jane Collective helped women to access ‘menstrual extraction’ procedures, often in domestic spaces. Brown notes that, for these underground collectives, ‘Domestic space became the space of choice, liberation, security and safety from the law.’[4] Meanwhile, the Netherlands-based initiative Women on Waves dodges national abortion laws by providing terminations at sea. As Brown astutely observes: ‘Connected with neoliberal policies, this project exploits the idea of free trade zones and International waters and exists because it plays against hegemony’s own system through legal loopholes of globalization.’[5] A similar intervention occurred recently in South Dakota when, faced with a prospective ban on almost all abortions, Cecilia Fire Thunder proposed opening a clinic on her reservation, which was beyond federal jurisdiction. In mapping the coordinates of a world without punitive borders, these projects testify to the potential scope of feminist spatial theory.


Yet the visions for feminist space projected by past generations of abortion rights activists seem woefully truncated by contemporary compromises. Among these are the ‘bubble laws’ adopted in some US states, which institute ‘zones of protection’ around clinics and the patients entering them. For Brown, the difficulty of enforcing these laws lends their name an ironic resonance: the translucency and fragility of bubbles mirrors the precarious status of abortion access. Her interviews with private clinics in the most restrictive US states—which include Mississippi, South Dakota, and Utah—uncover inventive tactics for grappling with government pressure and anti-abortion hostility. Clinics have developed an impressive repertoire of strategies for combating the harassment of their patients: installing sprinkler systems outside clinics, scheduling landscaping work to spray demonstrators with grass, and setting up speakers to drown out protest noise with music.


With the battle lines drawn, the project of drawing up blueprints for revolutionary feminist health spaces appears simultaneously urgent and remote. Few clinics have the freedom to choose their location because many landlords refuse to let space to abortion providers. Meanwhile, renovation proposals attract excessive levels of scrutiny from public officials beholden to the anti-choice movement. Is it better to be a free-standing clinic, with the autonomy to install tight security at entrances and exits, or to be absorbed into a multi-unit complex, where patients and workers have more anonymity? When making design decisions such as these, providers feel trapped between a rock and a hard place.


Brown writes, ‘Reproductive healthcare facilities have become twenty-first century equivalents to medieval cities where walls and moats were once used for security from intruders.’[6] There is, perhaps, an alternative to this state of enclosure. One of the clinic directors told Brown that abortion needs to become part of a larger movement for social justice, linked to campaigns for childcare, education, and health. This is the insight of the reproductive justice movement, instigated by women of colour in the US who have drawn attention to the problems of isolating abortion as a single issue.[7]


Contested Spaces opens with a synoptic journey through feminist geography and architectural theory, taking in Nancy Fraser on subaltern counterpublics, Iris Marion Young on pregnant embodiment, Homi Bhabha’s notion of a third space, and Elizabeth Grosz on the mutual constitution of bodies and cities. In her conclusion, however, Brown risks collapsing this nuanced discussion of space into a question of location. She writes:


I advocate for clinics to become more centrally located in our daily spatial lives. They need to be front and center in our society, not hidden away and difficult to access. Locate them in shopping malls where protests cannot happen due to malls not being public space.[8]


Brown goes on to argue that terminations should be provided not only in mainstream hospitals but in shopping malls, military bases, jails, prisons, high schools and churches. Grouping these institutions together as elements of our ‘daily spatial lives’ evades the important distinctions between their modes of funding and management. It is odd that Brown does not consider the stake shopping mall abortion clinics might have in a privatised healthcare system, given the centrality of abortion to debates over the Obama administration’s Affordable Care Act. Meanwhile, the nuances of reproductive healthcare in prison are ill-served by the proposal for jail-based abortion clinics, particularly in the wake of revelations that California prisons subjected female inmates to forced sterilisation as recently as 2010. A tension between pragmatism and utopianism animates Contested Cities, and its conclusion appears to decide in favour of the former. Meanwhile, Hayden’s challenge – ‘What would a non-sexist city look like?’ – reverberates, as a reminder of way the architecture of reproductive justice can be integrated into a broader vision for social change.



[1] Dolores Hayden, ‘What Would a Non-Sexist City Be Like? Speculations on Housing, Urban Design, and Human Work’, Signs, Vol. 5, No. 3, S170-S187.

[2] Lori A. Brown, Contested Spaces: Abortion Clinics, Women’s Shelters and Hospitals (Farnham: Ashgate, 2013), p. 101.

[3] Contested Spaces, p. 37.

[4] Contested Spaces, p. 78.

[5] Contested Spaces, p. 82.

[6] Contested Spaces, p. 185.

[7] See

[8] Contested Spaces, p.

“The One-Sex Body on Trial: the Classical and Early Modern Evidence” – a new review by Brandy Schillace

23 Apr, 14 | by gbelam

We are thrilled to be able to publish here a  wonderful review by Brandy Schillace, of Helen King’s book “The One-Sex Body on Trial: the Early and Modern Evidence.” (Surrey: Ashgate Press 2014.) Thank you so much to Brandy for her contribution to the blog – I will very much look forward to other pieces from her in the future!

– Georgia

The One-Sex Body on Trial: The Early and Modern Evidence

In so many important ways, I’ve been long anticipating this book. Where there is a lack, a need, we naturally look for satiety—and there has been a considerable gap in studies of the sexed body since the (pardon me) seminalwork of Thomas Laqueur: Making Sex. I do not mean to suggest a lacuna where none exists; certainly plenty has been written on the one-sex/two-sex body since the early 1990s. However, as Helen King herself points out, none of these works have, in a meaningful way, challenged—or even added to—Laqueur’s original analysis. If anything, they have solidified it, casting it as the background upon which all else must be built rather than as a concept or theory in its own right. Twenty years after its publication, Making Sex was still described as the standard, and as a graduate student I was given a copy as the potential foundation of my dissertation on women’s education and women’s bodies in the 18th century. There was only one problem: I found that I did not agree with aspects of Laqueur’s premise. It did not ring entirely true to what I was finding in women’s writing about their own bodies and minds in the eighteenth century.

That happens frequently, does it not? And any reasonable student seeks out the next text, and the next, to gain a broader perspective. But for me, in 2007, there were no other options. Or rather, all other options likewise returned me to the original as to the foundation, the blank background from which I was to begin. To be so statically conceived is unhealthy for any idea, no matter its worth. Closed to inquiry, its kernels harden. In The One-Sex Body on Trial, Helen King, historian and professor of classical studies at Open University, at last provides the counterpoint. Gracefully acknowledging the value of Laqueur’s work, she also offers its first real challenge. With her usual depth of perception, careful research, and immanent readability, King elaborates the other side of the one-sex/two-sex story.

One of the greatest strengths of King’s work related to her “storied” presentation. The medical humanities, though multiple and varied in definition and mission, largely seek to divine the human narrative behind medical meanings. Rather than asserting or denying the ‘one-sex’ body, King provides a reading of two key classical texts that problematize a single narrative of progression away from one model or towards the next. Close reading provides a new means of perceiving the terms in context, reminding us that in holding too close our own cultural understanding, we miss significance—or worse, misrepresent data. Using the story of Phaethousa (a woman and mother who seems to undergo masculinization) and Agnodice (a woman who wears male costume in order to become a physician), King demonstrates the variety of ways in which connotation and denotation collide. Even so common a thing as Agnodice’s calling card refuses to parse properly—to be “the WOMAN physician” can imply either that she is a woman and a physician, or a physician of women (she was, in fact, both).

In part one of King’s book, she assembles the classical evidence not of a strict adherence to the one-sex model, wherein women are men turned inside out with organs of generation that neatly correspond, but rather of a two-sex model that existed at times alongside but always in contention with the one-sex version. King does not argue for linear progression, however; rather than insisting that the one-sex to two-sex revolution happened, but happened earlier, she makes it clear that there was a range of models of the body. Vesalius, for instance, retains some of the earlier understanding of the body, such as the heart-shaped womb, but clearly departed from Galenic descriptions. The reading of Vesalius becomes clear only when the full context is considered. The question, whether Vesalius ascribed to the Galenic one-sex or Hippocratic two-sex model, is partly answered by close reading the images but also the text and the captions (frequently omitted in Laqueur’s work). Why is the abstracted womb shown without the female testicles? Because it is not an homage to Galen, of whom Vesalius claims “not even in his dreams did Galen ever see a woman’s womb” (57). Rather, it is, as King describes, the “womb and its constituent parts” –a thing unto itself and not the inverse of the male organs (59). King also describes the work of Laurens in 1593, who finds the vagina-as-penis idea frankly absurd—and Jane Sharp’s The Midwives Book of 1671, where Sharp claims that despite certain similarities, male and female organs can never be considered the same. By a careful marshalling of evidence, close-reading and analysis, and copious footnotes, King makes clear the problems with Laqueur’s sweeping pronouncement that the two-sex revolution arrived in the 18th century. King’s first two chapters also serve as excellent reminders that history is complicated and close reading within a cultural context remains our safest guard against anachronism. However, the second part of King’s book departs from the usual means of explication and proof and offers an exploration of the two classic tales mentioned in the introduction. In her masterful engagement with these, King seeks to ask broader questions that remain deeply important and even foundational for the medical humanities—namely, on what authority does medical knowledge depend. Whose stories matter, and who gets to tell them?

In the second part of King’s work, we once again examine the story of Phaethousa, the woman who, after previously birthing children, stops her menses and grows a beard after (or possibly in response to) the exile of her husband. The chapters in this section highlight the frequently confusing contexts in which such stories appeared, asking us to re-evaluate their role as “true” case histories. To what extent does she represent a medical construct? Her name and place of abode would have had metaphorical relevance to readers; has she been included as proof of the Hippocratic two-sex model? She dies, after all, and does not fully change into a man. If anything, the beard is a sign of illness, possibly related to her inability to conceive children after the loss of her husband. Here, Phaethousa is at risk because she is, in fact, too womanly, too reliant upon pregnancy for health. Later contexts (and later centuries) reinterpret her story, however; she appears in Wit’s Theatre as a fully functioning male, having undergone the inversion successfully. Surely this usage supports the one-sex model wherein male and female organs are interchangeable with the proper heat. And yet, she also appears in lists of hermaphrodites in the early modern period. What do such changes in context and, indeed, meaning represent? The story represents a “blank canvas,” a place where divergent and overlapping understandings of sex and gender might be enacted and analyzed, and reading this broader context allows us to go beyond Laqueur’s dichotomy and to recognize the variety of markers that made sex apparent, such as beard, menses, and generative ability. Part three of King’s book, which provides a similarly close reading of the Agnodice story, likewise challenges Laqueur’s straightforward picture of the classical and early modern world. “True sex” means different things in different versions (and for different audiences) of these narratives.  Agnodice’s story, particularly, does not fit into a single genre; the “voice” shifts and the text is offered up both by Agnodice’s supporters and her enemies.

King’s chapters on Agnodice, which close the book, render explicit the role of interpretive context: Agnodice as assertive and active heroine; Agnodice as shameful woman from which no woman should learn, Agnodice as the pretender—not to be trusted, Agnodice as agent of change. To what extent does the story represent reality? To what extent myth and fiction? How are we to read her role or even her name (chaste before justice), considering she saves herself from accusations of philandering with her woman patients by exposing her genitals in the courtroom? Even more complex, if possible, than the tale of Phaethousa, the story of Agnodice toys with the Galenic one-sex model while depending upon the two-sex model for its happy conclusion. More importantly, as King remarks, “the reason why the story is being told affects how it is constructed” (206). In her final chapter, wherein she ties the two tales together, King returns again to the markers of sex. What is it that makes a woman a woman? Or a man? Even Galen’s one-sex model is not as simple as it first appears. Rather, King’s extensive research reveals a much more fluid history, where different models of the body existed simultaneously and possibly on a spectrum wider still.

King’s work does, at many points, contradict Laqueur, but at no time does it set itself up as antagonistic to it. In many respects she agrees, particularly with Laqueur’s point that what was “seen” depended much more on expectation than anatomy. However, where Making Sex relied heavily on a smaller selection of sources, and these occasionally out of context, King widens the scope of source material for a richer and more meaningful engagement. Applying specific labels—either one-sex or two-sex—“obscures the complexity of the different interest groups, readers and tellers,” whereas our consideration of cultural and chronological specificity allows us to engage not just with meaning, but with meaning-making.

Stories behind closed doors: two films exploring group and drama therapy in prison

2 Apr, 14 | by Dr Khalid Ali, Senior Lecturer in Geriatrics, BSMS

The applications of dramatic and theatrical interactions between individual therapists and patient groups were first introduced by Moreno as early as 1920. The term “psycho-drama or drama therapy” was later coined by Kellerman in 1992, and was described as an effective means of supporting individuals in high secure units such as prisons and mental institutions. Two recent films “Scheherazade’s Diary” and “Starred up” explore the dynamics and experience of drama and group therapy in two different settings; in a women’s prison in Lebanon, and a men’s prison in the UK.

Scheherazade’s diary

Human Rights Watch Film Festival – March 18 – 28 2014

A review of Scheherazade’s Diary directed by Zeina Daccache, screening at the Human Rights Watch Film Festival 18 – 28 March 2014, across London.

By Yasmin El Derby, Independent film curator and critic.

Stories of people behind bars is not an alien subject to British audiences; TV soaps back in the 1970s and 80s such as Porridge (BBC, 1974 – 1977) and Prisoner Cell Block H (ITV, 1979 – 1886) and in more recent years Bad girls (ITV1, 1999 – 2006) and HBO’s Prison break (2005 – 2009). We have also seen various documentaries set in prisons from Louis Theroux and Trevor McDonald (including an ITV Women Behind Bars series) and a recent BBC3 documentary series Life and Death Row. However, all these series have focused on the Western world. Now for an insightful look inside an Arab women’s prison comes a thought-provoking documentary film Scheherazade’s Diary directed by actress and drama therapist Zeina Daccache. The film follows the emotive journey of several women inmates through a 10 months drama therapy project in Lebanon’s infamous Baabda prison. In an unprecedented event, the audience are given intimate access into the lives of women who have been imprisoned for ‘adultery, murder, drug trafficking and fraud’. The theatre initiative entitled Scheherazade allowed the women to reveal their extremely personal stories in a supportive, therapeutic environment through group ‘therapy’. We are introduced to the background stories that made these women the societal ‘rejects’ they are: the sad stories of domestic violence, underage marriage, traumatic childhoods, tragic relationships, and failed marriages. Lebanese society, as most Arab cultures, is very conservative and seldom discusses such sensitive subjects in public. However this code of silence has been recently broken by Lebanese women demonstrating in Beirut on International Human Rights Day on the 10th of December 2013 calling for an end to women’s suffering in prison.

The idea for the project originated when Daccache saw a similar prison scheme in Italy in the 1990s. During the 34 day war with Israel in 2006, Daccache felt trapped and helpless in her own home in Lebanon, and identified with women in prison. Daccache set up Catharsis – Lebanese Centre for Drama Therapy ( which received funding from the Italian Embassy in Lebanon. It took a further 2 years of lobbying the government and prison officials to allow her to create this drama therapy programme. Daccache began the project in a men prison in 2008 (resulting in the film Twelve Angry Lebanese). After the success of that project Daccache wanted to recreate the same initiative in a women’s prison.

The aim of the project was to offer women a way to express themselves through a creative artistic release of making a theatre and dance performance which family and friends of the inmates came to see. Each woman in the performance did not necessarily perform her own story to the audience, eliminating the ‘shame’ factor allowing women more freedom and confidence. The journey these women went on, their thoughts, feelings and hopes for a better future and of course, the final performance all made the documentary Scheherazade’s Diary.

It is not an exaggeration to say that the project transformed the lives of some of the women who took part; for example it resulted in one woman being offered a job by someone who saw the Scheherazade play. Not all women though had a “happy ending” as many of them still remain in Baabda prison. During the post-screening Q+A with Daccache, she revealed the significant number of women she came across who had been imprisoned on charges of ‘adultery’ but has yet to come across a man imprisoned on similar charges. The project and the film have helped shed a light on the abuse and discrimination that women face in today’s contemporary Lebanese society. The film sends a clear message “women are suffering in prison, and drama therapy may be able to help them”.

The Human Rights Watch Film Festival runs until 28th March and the film itself can be purchased online at

Starred up

In general release in the UK

Review by Tony Gammidge, an artist, filmmaker and art therapist who runs collaborative video and animation projects, ‘Voices from behind the Fence’ with service users on forensic and psychiatric units.

This prison drama directed by David Mackenzie, with screenplay by psychotherapist Jonathan Assler is a compelling violent and brutal portrait of the extremes of life in prison in which status and indeed survival depends on how psychopathic someone is or is prepared to be.

The term ‘starred up’ refers to young offenders with a reputation for extreme violence and this is well represented in the character of Eric Love (Jack O’Connell) the main protagonist. The film starts with his arrival at an adult prison after he is moved from a young offenders institute to the prison where his father (Ben Mendelson) is also serving a prison sentence. In a symbolic sense, this coincidence could be seen as the son returning to the source of his violence (in the form of his psychopathic father). The only chink of light in this tragic scenario is a ‘volunteer, Oliver (Rupert Friend) who runs a ‘therapy’ group in the high-security unit. Oliver persuades the authorities to give Eric one more chance after a particularly violent introduction to prison life, and to give Eric the opportunity to join his ‘therapy group’ to work on his ‘anger’ issues (a major understatement!). Eric though is predictably reluctant, suspicious and scathing at this helping hand and accuses Oliver of either merely wanting to look tough by taking someone ‘like him’ on or having a sexual motivation. However just as the group begins to earn Eric’s trust, a sadly predictable turn of events brings him back to his starting point.

For all of the film’s explosive and relentless violence there is a much understated   intelligence and subtlety at play from Oliver in his motivation for doing what he does without pay, and certainly without gratitude neither from the prison authority nor from the prisoners; Oliver life in prison is a health and safety nightmare.  The group work itself, its process and dynamics are fascinating and as someone who works on secure psychiatric units, I would have liked to see more of these intimate and reflective moments. However they are frustratingly brief in favour of the brutality and violence that drives the film. Perhaps this is an intentional metaphor for the reality of life in prison where therapeutic processes might be rare and indeed often railroaded by the very people and authorities who should be supporting them. I was reminded of this extract from Felicity De Zulueta’s book ‘From Pain to Violence; The Traumatic Roots of Destructiveness’ who asks this question;

“To what extent is our society responsible for the abused individual’s violent behaviour?” (De Zulueta p. 233)

Cleverly the film doesn’t give us any easy answers; any background information on the film characters is sketchy and hinted at rather than drawn too definitively. Showing the skeleton rather than the full flesh of the characters is one of the film’s strength as it gives the audience the liberty to fill in the gaps in the characters’ stories. I was particularly left craving for more information about Oliver and why he ‘needed’ to do this work. The script writer, Jonathan Assler, winner of the best British newcomer at the London Film Festival (LFF) 2013, said that he based his characters partly on people he saw while working in prisons.

The performances from Jack O’Connell as Eric Love, Ben Mendelson as his father and Rupert Friend as Oliver are electric and completely immersive as are the rest of the cast. The cinematography manages to be both unforgiving in its portrayal of the harsh environment it portrays but also beautiful in some of the details. For instance at the end of the film Eric looks out through a broken window into the prison yard where his fellow group members call him showing empathy and concern. As small and brief a gesture as it is, this sense of comradeship remains a faint glimmer of hope in what is otherwise a damning document about our criminal justice system.

Review edited by Dr Khalid Ali, senior lecturer in Geriatrics, Brighton and Sussex Medical School, editor of “The screening room”

Ayesha Ahmad: ‘Unorthodox Sufferings; The face of the man’

7 Oct, 12 | by Ayesha Ahmad

I will remember the face of the man who I had not expected to see.

In suburban Johannesburg, the soil begins to turn into a rich gold color. The soil summons an enticing depth to the earth, where as Jean-Luc Nancy (1994) writes, we find existence as the cradle between our birth and our death. From our footsteps, the ancestors rise and embody the agency of new life. There is life upon death, upon death.

And this life has a heart that is vivid; a pulsation that is energising; a sound that is lulling. The suffering grows within each person as if the heart is enlarging so not to feign life; a suffering that bleeds the brightest red to signify the liveliest dance.


James Poskett: Naval Expertise Conference, May 10-11 2013

4 Aug, 12 | by James Poskett

For those regularly following this blog, you’ll know I’m keen on exploring how maritime and medical history can be brought together, particularly with respect to developing critical global histories of both. If you share my enthusiasm, you might be interested in the following conference, due to take place 10-11th May 2013 at Wolfson College, University of Oxford.

Naval Expertise and the Making of the Modern World

One of the four major themes of the conference is ‘science and medicine’ including ‘the management of disease at sea’, so it would be great to see interested parties either presenting or attending. The call for papers is open now, with a deadline of 31st October 2012, and registration will open later in the year.

Ayesha Ahmad: Seminar June 20th 2012 on ‘Narrative Epileptology’ by Dr Maria Vaccarella, Kings College London

19 Jun, 12 | by Ayesha Ahmad

Dr Maria Vaccarella will present her ongoing research at an open seminar at the Centre for Health and Humanities, King’s College London.

Dr Vaccarella’s subject refers to the cultural history of epilepsy in the West, and narrative medicine applied to epilepsy care; creating a valuable insight into the interaction between health and the humanities.

The seminar will be held at 18.00-19.30 on June 20th at King’s College London (Strand Campus). All are welcome.

James Poskett: Digital surgeons at sea

30 May, 12 | by James Poskett

A few months ago I was raving about the prospects of a maritime history of medicine, the ship’s medicine chest being the focus of some of my latest studies.

Since writing that piece, the Wellcome Trust and National Archives have completed the digitisation of the Royal Navy Medical Officers’ journals. The project, entitled Surgeons at Sea, allows budding maritime historians to view and search over 1000 records online, encompassing the years 1793 to 1880.

There’s a really diverse range of themes to be uncovered. For those interested in everything from shark bites to venereal disease (and, of course, that all-pervasive medical tonic: rum), I’d certainly recommend taking the time to browse.

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