12 May 2010

Book Review: Anne Harrington, The Cure Within: A History of Mind-Body Medicine

Anne Harrington’s past scholarship has focused largely on the cultural history of science and medicine and usually with reference to the brain and nervous system. In The Cure Within: A History of Mind-Body Medicine, Anne Harrington builds on her earlier work by exploring several interlinked themes on mind-body illness and mind-body healing. Unlike her earlier books which were intended for academic audiences, Harrington has written this one for a wider if educated audience. In terms of that audience, the book invariably succeeds. Yet the book lacks a certain texture and quality that made her earlier works such models of historical scholarship and probably those readers who are familiar with her earlier works will walk away feeling a little teased, aware that there was more to be said and that somehow Harrington was holding back. These are obviously not really criticisms. Her book has been positively reviewed in all of the right places, and the importance of her questions and the answers she ultimately offers are poignant.

In short, Harrington addresses the subjective experiences of illness and healing, and the narratives that people use to describe those experiences. Harrington’s interests are to two-fold: she is as interested in why people are as skeptical of these stories as they are willing to articulate and relate to them. To tell her story, Harrington begins by focusing on the healers who sometimes used the power of suggestion to elicit revival in their patients. The important lesson to be drawn from her quick study of demonologists, mesmerists, and hypnotists is that the medical profession has occasionally relied upon similar tricks – in the modern day we call this the placebo effect.

The power of suggestion, however, implied an important duality in suffering. If the doctor could treat with suggestion, then why couldn’t the doctor create illness in the same manner? Enter the hysteric, the neuroasthenic, and the other psychosomatic patients that dominated Jean-Martin Charcot’s Paris clinic or later Freud’s practice in Vienna. Such patients and narratives spoke to a deeper transformation in society. It became conventional in the twentieth century to think that emotional outlook could change subjective bodily reality – the power of positive thinking. Ironically, with this modern understanding of science and emotions came a competing sense of gloom. For while modernity equipped everyone with the tools to survive, modern life also brought with it so many pressures - including the need to think positively – that normal individuals could be forgiven for succumbing to illnesses of modern life like stress. Although Harrington never mentions it, the duality she sets up so forcefully was often played out with greatest effect in the satires of the Age; in, for instance, the short films by the likes of Charlie Chaplin and Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy. In any case, her story ends with the merger between East and West. Harrington writes that with narratives about Eastward journeys “we seem to be saying that what modernity has wrought, ancient wisdom will heal” (208). Somehow the stress of modern living is supposed to be transformed with Zen.

Harrington’s book is a fun and quick read and her conclusions are thought provoking. Yet there are aspects of her argument that raise many questions, not the least about why historians suddenly discovered the importance of experience and the ways in which experiences changed over time. One cannot help but see larger material forces and pressures undergirding the turn to cultural history and experience. Harrington points out (hopes?) that these narratives of mind and body have a destabilizing effect, one that might bring about an end to the two cultures approach that has so long dominated the academy. But for me that elides a more essential question. What is culture? If Harrington believes that culture exists largely intact and removed from economic stratum of societies (and her book’s presentation suggests that she doesn’t believe that), then the narratives of mind-body medicine might truly be transcendent in the way that her conclusions imply. Yet some might be forgiven for suspecting that these cultural narratives have more to do with middle class anxieties, pressures, and privilege, as well as the shifting global conjunctures of industrial and financial production. My point is that whenever we elevate certain cultural narratives, we do so by ignoring alternative others. Or put differently, we lend our voice to our own cultural narrative, one that is perhaps much more coherent than we realize.

This is admittedly an old-fashioned even unfashionable critique of a currently fashionable historical approach. Harrington’s book is very good. It would be useful in the classroom, and it has already established its broad appeal. But perhaps the book can best serve to push younger historians to ask questions about our own storytelling strategies. Or, put more precisely, why we have adopted the cultural history approach.


  1. Nor does she mention the great 19th century neurasthenic William James from a family of neurasthenics. And James may be said to be among the pioneers of thinking about affective diseases in anything like a modern way.

  2. In Cure Within Anne Harrington often references her findings to the work of William James.

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