My research agenda reflects my role as a bridge builder in three main ways. First, the motivating question behind my research is how people make sense of out inexplicable experiences.
My book project, Providential Narratives And Remarkable Bodies: Illness And Disability In Early America, 1650-1776, therefore focuses on how the sick, disabled, and injured employ narratives to interpret their conditions and maintain bonds with their larger communities.
Second, I use an interdisciplinary framework to link twenty-first century medical/health humanities to colonial American literature. Third, I see the process of meaning making, both for the subjects of my research and for myself as a scholar, as a fundamentally communal activity that unites people. I am therefore invested in sharing my work not only with academic audiences, but with diverse stakeholders.
In my research, I focus on how patients in early America construct narratives to make meaning out of illness. My book challenges the notion that patients are marginalized figures. Illness is fundamentally social, even though we often think about illness as isolating. Often, illness disrupts pre-existing communities, as the sick are separated from the healthy. Yet even quarantine can be understood in a social context. Colonial puritans saw quarantine as a choice undertaken to protect others from infection. Convalescent puritans circulated letters, poems, and testaments of faith as a way to maintain bonds between sick and healthy people and spaces. Illness narratives are about using writing to stay connected to our families and communities.
Illness and disability link networks of survivors, caregivers, and practitioners. This can be disruptive and disorienting because it requires us to abruptly navigate new and sometimes frightening spaces and discourses. We also have to take on unfamiliar roles.
Patients are always building bridges between their pre-illness communities, and the communities they have been forced, either temporarily or permanently, to join. My book explores the narrative strategies seventeenth- and eighteenth-century patients used to forge connections between themselves, their health, and their communities.
Awareness of these narratives is important because creating stories about one’s somatic and mental health—whether through diaries, letters, conversion narratives, or, more recently, blogs—continues to be a powerful form of agency. These narratives unite us, and remind us that sickness is something we all, eventually, have in common.
Bridging the gap between the colonial period and the present also helps us think critically about the kinds of illness narratives that are circulated today. The stories we tell about our bodies and our health continue to connect us. For example, how many medical GoFundMe’s or CarePages have been shared with you? My research reveals that patient agency is not a post-modern phenomenon. Rather, I contend that narrative has been a tool for articulating patient’s interpretations of their health even as conceptions of patient agency have changed over time. I use an interdisciplinary framework in my analysis—uniting methods from Native studies, medical/health humanities, disability studies, and psychohistory. Traditionally, some of these disciplines have been mutually exclusive. However, because ability and disability are constructed differently in the seventeenth century, many modern disciplinary divisions are arbitrary for these texts.
I use an interdisciplinary approach because otherwise we miss the ways people actually wrote about their bodies in these earlier periods.
Each chapter of the book analyzes how various individuals and groups employ narrative strategies to ascribe meaning to medical experiences. In chapter one, I analyze the role of illness narratives in John Eliot’s and Experience Mayhew’s missionary tracts with a particular emphasis on what I term “remarkable bodies,” meaning disabled, ill, or injured bodies that are interpreted as having providential significance. This chapter reveals how Native Americans blend the rhetoric of Christianity and Wampanoag culture to craft their own interpretations of medical experiences that do not always align with Eliot’s and Mayhew’s interpretations.
Chapters two and three explore how scientific and religious epistemologies were complementary and mutually informed the meaning of illness in the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. In An Essay for the Recording of Illustrious Providences (1684), I argue that Increase Mather employs empirical methods to argue that illness and disability do not alienate the afflicted from God’s grace. This becomes a foundational principle of medical Providentialism, which I explore further in my analysis of Cotton Mather’s The Angel of Bethesda (1724). This chapter examines how religious-medical epistemologies enable patient agency. By looking at how restitution narratives—stories of recovery—are incorporated into many Puritan genres, I show how patients were actively involved in their own medical care. Finally, my project culminates in an analysis of Joseph Johnson’s (Mohegan) diary entries from 1771-1772. Johnson’s diary illustrates how Native American writers took the legacy of early mission writings, brought new epistemologies to bear on their experiences, and found rhetorical strategies to communicate about their health.
My project has been well received at multiple national conferences for the Society of Early Americanists (SEA) and the American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies (ASECS). I am also actively involved in developing early American health humanities at the national level. In 2019 I was invited to participate in a colloquy on disability studies at the SEA’s 2019 biennial conference in Eugene, OR. My work has appeared in Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, and an article-length selection from my book project titled “On Physical and Spiritual Recovery: Reconsidering the Role of Patients in Early American Restitution Narratives” is forthcoming in The Journal of Medical Humanities.
During the summer of 2019, I started on my second book project while I was the Erikson Scholar in Residence at the Austen Riggs Center in Stockbridge, MA. At Riggs, I collaborated with clinical psychologists, developing an interdisciplinary framework to analyze the death of Dorothy May Bradford (1597-1620). Bradford drowned while the Mayflower was anchored in Cape Cod in 1620. Beginning in the late nineteenth century, however, scholars began speculating that perhaps Bradford’s death was actually a suicide. While ostensibly trying to recover her interiority and ascribe personal agency to Bradford by giving her control over her own death, these stories in fact rely on misogynistic stereotypes that reduce her to the roles of wife and mother.
Working with the clinical staff at Riggs, I learned to ask better questions about mental health, depression, and suicide in colonial America. In particular, I focused on the psychological effects of forced and voluntary migration, community ruptures, and grief.
By recognizing the complex mental health of European, Native, and African figures in the colonial period, the book aims to reframe the stories we tell about mental illness, normalize psychiatric treatment, and reduce stigma.
The book draws on a post-Freudian psychoanalytic framework to ethically uncover mental health as an essential aspect of American history and literature. An article version of my research on Bradford is currently under consideration with Early American Literature.
Ultimately, my research gives scholars the tools to engage in more nuanced discussions of health and healthcare that do not marginalize patients, and that span the divides between individual agency and the role of patients in our social, political, and medical discourses.
For more information on my scholarly interests, please see my coursework page for a description of graduate courses I have taken.