Monday, September 1, 2008

One Hit Wonder

I'm interested in stories that touch on the peculiarity of the aspiring healer's role, and most specifically those that address the shamanistic aspects of the therapist's predicament. The three stories known to me that take on this theme most powerfully are Chekhov's "Ward 6," Nathanael West's "Miss Lonelyhearts," and a relative unknown, Mary Ladd Gavell's "The Rotifer." Gavell's clinically detached, yet sublimely melancholy story first became known to me (and to a wider readership in general) by means of 1999's John Updike-edited The Best American Short Stories of the Century.

Gavell's personal story, described here, is intriguing in several respects. While not medically or psychologically trained, she did serve as managing editor for the academic journal Psychiatry from 1955 until her premature death from cancer in 1967. She wrote a number of short stories, but apparently made little effort to have them published, and none did appear in her lifetime. But after her death Psychiatry, which did not as a rule publish fiction of course, did publish "The Rotifer," which ended up selected for 1968's The Best American Short Stories. From there Updike picked her unknown name to join the much more reknowned ones of the century. After that exposure, several years ago a volume of her other stories (as yet unread by me) was finally released.

"The Rotifer" contains three haunting episodes featuring the gulfs that separate people, and the consequent challenges not only of reaching out to help others, but of connection itself. The young woman narrator, in a science class exercise, muses on the utter impossibility of relating to the microbe (the rotifer) in any meaningful way; in an effort to free the creature from some algal obstruction, she nudges the slide and, of course, disrupts that entire microbial universe.

Later, in the course of historical research into the personal archives of a 19th century family, she finds herself attached to, and concerned about, a young boy who, more than a century before her birth, was sent off to boarding school and, in the archival record at least, never heard from again. She comes to extrapolate these disjunctions of scale and time to interpersonal relationships in general and, with sad consequences in a third episode, finds herself unable to reach out to her family even when no obstacle other than her own resignation seems to exist.

It is fascinating to think of Mary Ladd Gavell, fifty years ago, editing technical psychiatry papers during the day and coming home (after tending to her household and children no less) to compose an alternative, parallel take on the same "psychiatric" phenomenon, the contingent and bittersweet coming together and sundering of lives.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Wow, what a great blog! (ha ha)

Actually, The Humble Blogger is just testing the comment system as there was a question about it.