Story by Story: Who I Am, What I Suffer

This volume brings together two authors, one a psychiatrist, one a philosopher, to listen to one another’s reading of five stories of what it’s like to bear a different mental or physical illness. The beginning story, or anchor, for the conversation that unfolds between them is that of a person subject to recurring spells of catatonia, the uncanniest of human conditions. They discover that truly understanding what an illness is calls for understanding it within the context of who suffers it, that to understand illness is to establish the right relation between what is being suffered and who is suffering it. This deceptively simple way of talking, which is labelled who/what talk, will prove more practical and more clarifying than will terms like “mental” and “physical.” Furthermore, it has this additional dividend: it intrinsically resists a temptation toward medical prejudice—the inclination for doctors and other caregivers to lose the who of the sufferer through their focus on the what of her illness.


Robert Arnold Johnson’s first career was in cardiology; for a decade it was academic, at Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital, Boston, and then for seventeen years in private practice in Walla Walla, Washington State. Within a few years of retirement in 2001, however, he began medical training as a psychiatric resident at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital, Philadelphia. He returned to Walla Walla in 2007 to practice psychiatry and psychotherapy.

Thomas Alderson Davis carried out graduate studies in Philosophy at Vanderbilt University, USA, under the direction of Charles E. Scott, and he came to Whitman College in Walla Walla to teach Philosophy in 1987. His research focuses particularly on Continental philosophy, and he especially admires the work of the late American philosopher Stanley Cavell.

"Story by Story: Who I Am, What I Suffer is a bold and provocative text that incorporates fiction and medical and philosophical theory with the aim of permanently changing doctor/patient relations. It offers an insightful, hopeful, and compelling account of how and why medical practitioners must learn to treat disease within a particular individual patient. Without knowing the "Who," the authors argue, it is impossible to treat the "what" that the patient suffers from. Here the "art" of medical practice clearly transcends the simple "science" of medicine. The first-person fictional stories that open each section give a sense of immediacy to the medical and philosophical explanations that follow. Rather than feeling that we are simply reading about "catatonia," for example, we distinctly sense that we are witnessing it, experiencing its lived reality, at the same time that we are listening to comments about it. This rich combination of fiction and medical and philosophical commentary is one of the most original aspects of this study which, perhaps, is most important for non-specialist readers who now know what they have a right to demand as patients, even if they can’t quite yet expect it … We live in an age where we evaluate our doctors online after each visit. A book like this might revolutionize such evaluations. This book makes a significant contribution to the field of medical ethics."

Patrick Henry, PhD Former co-editor, Philosophy and Literature

"I have been reading Story by Story for a few days and enjoying the patient descriptions. [It has] captured the catatonia syndrome in Zach Z better than any other description, bringing alive the dilemma of conflict and fear better than any other that I have seen. The response to treatment is poignant and compelling. I have collected other stories from novels but [it] is more detailed than Daniel Mason’s Winter Soldier, Ann Bauer’s story of her son in Wild Ride Up the Cupboards, or Herman Melville’s Bartleby, the Scrivener that I have noted before. Catatonia is a syndrome that is readily identified, verified, and treated. It meets the criteria for a medical diagnosis. But it has the unique quality that it is identified by the quality and persistence of the human's motor behaviors. We lack evidence of tissue damage, and when the syndrome is relieved by lorazepam, no signs are left. [The book’s] descriptions are excellent. I am delighted to add this book to my Library at the Special Collections at the Melville Library at Stony Brook University. It will be indexed in World Cat."

Max Fink, MD Professor Emeritus of Psychiatry and Neurology, Stony Brook University School of Medicine; Co-author, Catatonia: A Clinician’s Guide to Diagnosis and Treatment (2003)

Thomas Davis

Robert Arnold Johnson

Buy This Book

ISBN: 1-5275-3519-3

ISBN13: 978-1-5275-3519-0

Release Date: 2nd August 2019

Pages: 174

Price: £58.99

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ISBN: 1-5275-4931-3

ISBN13: 978-1-5275-4931-9

Release Date: 24th April 2020

Pages: 174

Price: £38.99

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