Writing Diabetes: How Public and Private Conceptions of Body Shape the Self-Narratives of the Chronically Ill

Date of Award



Edward Cahill

Second Advisor

Amy Aronson


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During my nine years with type 1 diabetes, I have learned again and again that the way I conceive of my body is necessarily different from how non-diabetics conceive of theirs. A diabetic body is something that must be punctured and hurt in order to stay alive, hidden in order to stay socially accepted, and monitored constantly in order to stay rational and conscious. I’ve had to accept the fact that my mind and body are not as separate as others might like to imagine theirs are—for example, when I have an insulin reaction and my body shuts down, my mind shuts down, too. Often, this inability to distinguish mind from body clashes with the demands of American society, which promotes and rewards the mind-over-body work ethic of the “able-bodied.” Of course, as one of three million American type 1 diabetics, I am far from alone in this dilemma.

My project aims to examine the way female diabetic writers have navigated their conceptions of body in American society through the medium of memoir. I have chosen to study three autobiographies: “Needles” by Andie Dominick, “Showdown with Diabetes” by Deb Butterfield, and “Sweet Invisible Body” by Lisa Roney. In each of these books, the author must confront mainstream social institutions that do not always accommodate their bodily difference, forcing them to feign the ability to “control” their bodies in order to be publicly accepted. Three main social institutions on which these authors all focus are: primary and secondary education, the medical profession, and the heteronormative expectation of reproduction. While “able-bodied” society generally accepts the Cartesian mind-body binary as a valid concept of self, the diabetic narrators find that their experiences are incompatible with such a binary as they struggle within societal institutions that encourage a mind-over-body mentality. As a result, according to these memoirs, in order to be successful and accepted in these institutions, type 1 diabetics must force their public lifestyles to be consistent with a mind-body paradigm that does not describe their experience. In private, however, these authors’ concepts of body and self are considerably more complicated, and they are often unable to distinguish between mind and body in any definitive way.

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