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"Culture, ‘mental’ illness, and embodiment: Survey evidence of helpful and harmful effects of fiction-reading for eating disorders" Dr Emilly Troscianko (University of Oxford)

Egenis seminar series

Egenis seminar series. The healing power of literature is far more often assumed than tested—either that, or ignored as irrelevant to the serious medical business of curing illness. Neither attitude is helpful. Cultural factors can clearly be relevant to mental health, and the treatment-resistance of many mental illnesses, combined with the high financial cost of many existing therapies, makes the idea of using books to heal people an attractive one. But although fiction and poetry seem to be used fairly often in therapeutic practice, so far there is very little systematic understanding of what actually works and what doesn’t for different conditions and individuals. I take eating disorders as a case study, and report on evidence from a large-scale survey conducted with the charity Beat. We found that reading some kinds of fiction is perceived to have therapeutic effects, but that other kinds can be highly detrimental to mental and physical health—in particular those texts which thematise eating disorders, which seem often to be sought out by sufferers specifically with the aim of exacerbating their illness.

Event details

These findings directly contradict existing theoretical models of ‘creative bibliotherapy’ (the therapeutic use of fiction, poetry, or drama, rather than self-help books), which tend to insist that there should be as close a match as possible between the reader’s and the protagonist’s situations, so as to promote ‘identification’, and thus in turn insight and problem-solving. Our self-report evidence (including rich free-response reflections) suggests other ways of understanding the role of narrative-cued interpretation in the context of disordered eating. It also raises questions about the cultural positioning of eating disorders (their inseparability from cultural ideals about bodily appearance, as well as from the medical preoccupation with obesity), and how aesthetic prompts like fictional texts might intervene differently in psychopathologies of different kinds.


Byrne House