Profs. Rivkin-Fish and Thrailkill
The second vignette in John Berger’s A Fortunate Man recounts the relationship between a country doctor and his patient/ex-patient who is now described merely as a “woman of about thirty-seven.” The story truly begins ten years prior, when the doctor first encounters the woman and attempts to address the cause of a cough. The doctor is quick to conduct scientific inquiry on the woman, ordering a chest X-ray and allergy test, and though he recognizes something emotionally troublesome is proliferating below the surface of the symptoms, the doctor fails to elicit explanation. The woman becomes zoomorphized by her illness and lack of pertinent treatment: she is described as having round rabbit eyes that twitch like a rabbit’s nose, trapped in the cage of her sickness, and frozen as if stalked by a predator. Her agency in life is lost as she “survives on steroids” and “seldom leaves the cottage.” The doctor’s role as not only biological investigator but as social healer is both revealed and relinquished in this episode. Kleinman may diagnose that the doctor correctly identified the disease while ignoring the woman’s illness; Frank may perceive this aborted restitution narrative as indicative of modern medicine’s insufficiency in healing that which is not inflicted by genes or germs. With “the girl with asthma” now reduced to her most animalistic mannerisms, the doctor is now cognizant of his shortcomings. In the final poetic passage, the woman is personified as a body of water who, once profound and full, has been diminished by nature and others to a bubbling brook of anxiety and worry. The river bend symbolizes the tempestuous time when the doctor may have been able to straighten the woman’s path but inadvertently allowed the illness to overcome. This reflection suggests the country doctor’s growth in his role as healer.
Berger, John, and Jean Mohr. A Fortunate Man. Granata Books, 1989.