Although I’ve spent the better part of the last two decades writing biographies and reflecting on biography as a genre, I’ve always been very fond of auto-biographies, especially those of academics and professionals.
The reason for this fondness is probably that autobiographies stimulate my fantasies about how my life trajectory could have been different. By engaging in an inner dialogue between the autobiographer’s and my own voices, it’s not only possible to come a little closer to the other’s mind and practice, but maybe one can even learn a little more about one’s own decisions, many mistakes and occasional successes.
It doesn’t really matter if the story is accurate or not. After all, autobiography is closer to fictional writing than biography, which in turn is closer to faction (history). For that reason autobiography is a better genre than biography for the kind of ‘souci de soi’ (care of self)-practices, which Pierre Hadot, and later Michel Foucault, have explored (in Philosophy as a Way of Life: Spiritual Exercises from Socrates to Foucault and The History of Sexuality, respectively).
I use to read all kinds of academic and professional self-writing with great pleasure. But for job-related reasons I keep a special eye on medical memoirs and autobiographies.
Frankly, more often than not, this feels more like a duty than a pleasure. Because medical self-writing is largely dominated by physicians and medical researchers who sometimes seem to believe that their lives are important just because they happened to construct a useful apparatus, or described a rare syndrome, or made an important physiological discovery.
True, such elite narratives can be potent sources for later medical history writing. But they are not necessarily recipes for interesting memoirs or autobiographies. The historical importance of a life’s work is often reversely proportional to the richness of the life lived. Moreover, the literary quality of many of these medical doctors’ autobioi varies enormously, most of them gathering around the lower end of my aesthetic sensibility meter. Most are quite tedious, few stick to my memory.
However, the lives of people from other medical professions — nurses, midwifes, public health workers, medical technicians and so forth, that is, people who have not been Very Important People but who sometimes just happen to have lived enigmatic and engaging lives — not seldomly make for more interesting reads.
Unfortunately, these other medical professionals rarely get the brilliant idea to go about writing their autobiography. Not Very Important People in the medical professions apparently do not believe they have something interesting to tell. So each time I come across one of these medical staff autobioi I get pretty excited.
As for example the other day, when my Google Reader announced a blogpost by Norwegian medical videographer Øystein Horgmo titled ‘How did it come to this?’. It is touching because he focuses on how his girlfriend’s little sister died of leukemia a few years ago and how this experience propelled him to into combining his former, pretty disparate, professional trainings in nursing and video filming to become a medical videographer (and in my opinion a very reflexive one).
Horgmo’s essay is pretty short and not stylistically sophisticated. But it is nevertheless a fine example of how autobiographical writing by medical professionals can fulfil the function of ‘care of self’. As Horgmo himself writes towards the end: ‘That’s my story. I’ve found the sense of meaning I was searching for’.