Professor Benjamin Explores Philosophy, Memoir and Medical Trauma in The Catastrophic Self

August 1, 2016

Professor Marlene "Molly" Benjamin

Over 25 years, Professor Marlene “Molly” Benjamin’s life has been shaped by medical trauma, including but not confined to cancer, mental illness and alcoholism. A philosopher, she discovered that her formal training in philosophy, which is meant to help us live our lives more fully, has not always helped her find meaning in suffering.  That surprise challenged her to reflect deeply about her situation and her role as a philosopher.

The result is The Catastrophic Self: Essays in Philosophy, Memoir, and Medical Trauma, a unique blend of autobiography, storytelling and philosophy. The book explores the relationship between first person narrative and analytic philosophy as they themselves wrestle with the experiences of medical trauma, and how medical trauma shapes a human life.

Now retired, Benjamin taught moral and political philosophy at the College from 1987 to 2010.  In The Catastrophic Self,  published by Fisher Imprints, a Division of Inter-Disciplinary Press, Oxford, United Kingdom, her writing is intensely personal, raw, and analytically rigorous. See below to read an excerpt.

Post-Modern Illness
My sister is fatigued. Not just tired or sleepy, but deeply exhausted, unable to keep her eyes open, unable to walk steadily back to the bedroom for a nap, back to the bed from which she just rose two hours ago. She aches all over and can barely move without pain in some joint or muscle somewhere. She has Irritable Bowel Syndrome, and her stomach is nearly always upset. These are just the major signs of the complex set of symptoms called Fibromyalgia, a chronic disease for which there is no cure.

Fibromyalgia is a relatively new diagnosis on the medical scene, and some people, even some doctors, don’t believe it is real, looking upon patients with the diagnosis as hysterical, as malingerers, as people who are "making it all up in their heads."

Living with my sister, I know otherwise. Fibromyalgia is perhaps the best example of a post-modern illness – an illness that combines biological and cultural features so intimately that it is hard to disentangle them, an illness that demonstrates the deep connection between body and mind and gives the lie to the Enlightenment Cartesian split view of mind and body. It is a chronic illness without a cure situated at the crossroads of mind and body, of culture and biology, and it is this situation that makes it post-modern.

As David Morris points out in Illness and Culture in the Postmodern Age, the post-modern view recognizes that "illness is never wholly personal, subjective, and idiosyncratic, nor is disease wholly objective, factual and universal, but both take on their specific malleable historical shapes through the mediations of culture." The post-modern view is radically different than the Cartesian view. Both viewpoints have important implications for pain.

According to Morris, "Descartes influentially explained pain through the bodily mechanisms now called nociception, and this explanation allowed doctors to dump all the clumsy, contradictory prescientific baggage that had associated pain with meaning … when pain was thus officially emptied of meaning, the mind was simultaneously recast as a passive spectator of the body’s woes, which now conveyed the same simple message supplied by an alarm bell: something is wrong. It is exactly this reductive biomedical model of pain that [many patients find they need] to evade and rewrite."

Rewriting the Model of Pain
 My sister was one of those patients who needed to evade and rewrite the biomedical model of pain and suffering. I needed to do it with her. We tried to learn affectively, not merely intellectually. This difference is important, and nicely articulated in Martha Nussbaum's reading that suffering is itself a kind of knowledge, not merely an instrument for gaining the so called 'real knowledge' aimed at by the rational reflections of philosophic thought.

book This sort of affective knowledge is more closely represented in tragedy than in traditional philosophic forms of inquiry precisely because, as Nussbaum says, “[I]nterpreting a tragedy is a messier, less determinate, more mysterious matter than assessing a philosophical example; and even when the work has once been interpreted, it remains unexhausted, subject to reassessment, in a way that the example does not . . .” In fact, “[o]ur cognitive activity, as we explore the ethical conception[s] embodied in the text[s of tragedy and in our daily lives], centrally involves emotional response.  We discover what we think about events partly by noticing how we feel.”

Analytic philosophy neglects and derides the fact that how we feel is usually more available for notice in personal narrative than in traditional forms of philosophic inquiry.  And in this neglect and derision analytic philosophy can offer only an inadequate account of the way our experiences influence our ways of knowing. When this finally hit me, I was thrown for a loop, nearly undone. So much needed rethinking.

Professor Benjamin's Campus Visit
Professor Benjamin will be back at Stonehill on Tuesday, October 25 to discuss the themes she raises in The Catastrophic Self. Her lunch time presentation will be in Alumni Hall at 1:00 P.M. All are welcome. Please RSVP to Noelle Preston if you plan on attending. Email her at or call her at (508) 565-1131.

For more on The Catastrophic Self: Essays in Philosophy, Memoir, and Medical Trauma, which is also available for purchase, visit here. If you order by November 19th, you will receive a 20 percent discount. When ordering on the site, use the code sufferingself to get the discount.