cover image What’s Wrong? Personal Histories of Chronic Pain and Bad Medicine

What’s Wrong? Personal Histories of Chronic Pain and Bad Medicine

Erin Williams. Abrams Comicarts, $29.99 (226p) ISBN 978-1-419-74734-2

If Western medicine tends to overlook patients’ individual lived experiences, this powerful collection of illustrated personal histories from Williams (Commute) embodies a protest of sorts. Framed by the artist’s own narrative of chronic mental and physical illnesses, the stories spotlight four people whose conditions were made worse by the professionals and systems meant to help them. Dee is a Brooklyn-born woman from a Jamaican family, whose circuitous navigation of a racist medical system may have led to a delayed diagnosis of bladder cancer. Rain is a queer trans woman with a primary immunodeficiency syndrome that primarily affects genetic males; their diagnosis leaves them struggling financially and their identity in a state of flux. Alex, one of the elite gymnasts sexually abused by former U.S.A. women’s national team doctor Larry Nassar, struggles to separate joy (the endorphins of a backflip) from dread (of the “hundreds of ‘treatments’ ” she received from Nassar). Williams, herself a former cancer researcher, once made science her “entire personality.” Here she cites systemic failures of medicine, but her thesis is ultimately existential: medicine can be part of care, she posits, but true care requires community. Intricate watercolors and flattened digital art depict the feelings that science cannot: bodies falling through space, rendered animalistic, ghostly, monstrous—but also occasionally flourishing, when care for the soul is part of the process. Though these portraits can be harrowing, they offer solidarity and uplift to those who’ve felt marginalized by the medical system. Agent: Paul Lucas, Janklow & Nesbit Assoc. (Jan.)

Correction: A previous version of this review used the wrong pronouns to refer to one of the profile subjects.