Re-defining medical empathy: Du Boisian double consciousness in memoirs written by doctors of color
Fonseca, Danyela M.
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Through ongoing technological and scientific advancements, the science of American medicine progresses every day. Comparatively, however, the culture and cultural approaches of the field fall short with the problem of medical othering. Medical scholars discuss the problem of othering as one between patient and doctor. To avoid othering, medical instruction prioritizes the psychological concept of empathy. Thus, empathy and othering are considered conceptual inverses of one another. To exemplify and indoctrinate this construction of empathy, medical training often turns to the othering present in the literary text of Frankenstein. Moreover, medical scholars emphasize the potential of literacy—that is, reading and writing literature—to counter cultural disparities, including medical othering. A particular literary genre of interest is medical narratives, included in which is the medical memoir. The literacy of medical narratives, scholars posit, allows for the mitigation between the objective self and subjective other(s) in medicine. This project therefore focuses on the convergences of considerations of medical othering and empathy with a re-reading of the empathy-othering binary in Frankenstein, and tracing that reading through memoirs written by doctors of color. Using W. E. B Du Bois’s theory of double consciousness and Kimberle Crenshaw’s theory of intersectionality, I analyze the double consciousness expressed in memoirs written by doctors of color to offer a more complex, critical framework of empathy. Shifting previous conversations regarding the medical empathy-othering binary as a patient problem, I examine doctor-doctor interactions in which medical authority and power should ostensibly be balanced. Revealing the limitations of Victor Frankenstein’s similarity-based empathy, I describe how empathy is constructed normatively and nonnormatively in non-others and others, respectively. I argue that empathy, more than anti-othering, is an involved process that requires reciprocity to shift from its potential to actualized form.