Carpenter Response 1: Sickness in relation to “On Being a Cripple”

Kayley Carpenter

Reading Response 1

Julio Villa-Palomino

Prompt 2 (Kleinman and pg 1 of “On Being a Cripple”)

Word Count: 298


In The Illness Narratives, Arthur Kleinman distinguishes illness, disease, and sickness, as they pertain to suffering and healing. He describes illness as the “innately human experience of symptoms and suffering” (3). Contrastingly, he defines disease as “the problem from the practitioner’s perspective,” reminding readers that not every culture of healing believes in biomedicine, and their epistemologies are no less valid in defining disease within their cultural narrative (5). Sickness differs from both terms, as Kleinman defines sickness as “the understanding of a disorder in its generic sense across a population in relation to macrosocial…forces” (6). Kleinman’s specific use of a third term, sickness, emphasizes that, in many cases, sickness intensifies the illness experience more than the disease, or diagnosis, could. This concept regarding societal understanding and connotations of a particular disease is especially prevalent in Nancy Mairs’ essay, “On Being a Cripple.”

Mairs describes her multiple sclerosis diagnosis and self-label of “cripple.” She uses imagery to depict her illness experience, including her fall in a public restroom. On page 1, the audience is enlightened on her illness experience and suffering from her declining health. Mairs also explains how her disease fits into a larger societal understanding of people functioning as less-than the average, healthy person—this broader understanding and labeling of an illness within a culture is what Kleinman deems sickness. The societal understanding of disability is that “cripple” is a demeaning synonym for “handicapped,” “disabled,” or “differently abled.” Mairs vehemently dislikes the latter, as it glosses over her illness politely, so as not to offend her. Mairs claims this term fails to acknowledge her own personal suffering. Without acknowledging that sickness is the societal understanding of the disease diagnosis, society lacks the ability to truly absorb one’s suffering and oftentimes furthers the burden of one’s illness experience.