In the Kingdom of the Sick

May 18, 2018 by


Title: In the Kingdom of the Sick: A Social History of Chronic Illness in America
Authors: Laurie Edwards
Year: 2013

Quick Summary:
The subtitle of this book sums it up perfectly – this is meant as a history lesson regarding the concept of chronic illness in the United States. It starts by covering the concept of illness long before the US became a country, but then dives into more recent events, such as World War Two, the Civil Rights movement, the Women’s movement, and the changes that have and are happening thanks to the Digital Age. Each of these points in history has had a dramatic effect on the way that chronic illness is perceived and treated today.

Laurie Edwards, the author, has dealt with a chronic condition since birth and also happens to teach health and science writing at Northwestern University, a combination of experiences that plays right into the concept of her book. And this is a thorough review, citing a wide range of authors, historians, and activists that have chronicled either the plight of chronic disease or the movements that have impacted it throughout the country’s history. And it hits on some incredibly salient issues for those dealing with a chronic illness, from the words we choose to use to describe ourselves (condition, illness, disease, etc.), to our culture’s association between wellness and moral character, and the stigma associated with illness, disability, and seeking help.

I think that I had been very hopeful that this book would open my eyes to information, stories, and historical context that I was previously unaware of. In some ways, I suppose that it did. But, unfortunately, I felt that I had to slog through a lot of unnecessary wordiness and wandering in order to get there.

The author is a talented writer, but often gets caught up in the use of “flowery” language when simpler, more concise phrasing would be more appropriate. For instance, this sentence sums up an incredibly important concept, but with far too many words: “From the healthy-looking patient who gets grief for using a handicapped parking placard to the hard-working employee whose performance is lagging due to an acute flare of an autoimmune disease no one knows she has, invisibility affords many opportunities for alienation”. On the other hand, she quotes authors that have mastered the use of succinct phrasing. For instance, Jill Lepore, a writer for the New Yorker, said “For decades now, life expectancy has been rising. But the longer we live the longer we die.”

Final Word:
If you are currently trying to learn to manage your condition and reorient your life around a life-changing diagnosis, this probably isn’t the book for you. However, if you are interested in becoming an advocate or activist and are looking to know more about the social history that brought us to where we are now in our views on chronic illness, then I would recommend this book. There is valuable insight here into the traps and controversies that many of us found ourselves catapulted into. However, be prepared for some meandering thoughts and wordy passages. I found it helpful to take notes on particularly powerful concepts as I was reading (something I don’t often do) simply because it was so hard to retrace my steps after the fact.

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