Who Gets To Tell Other People's Stories?
I was recently given a rather astonishing little book called “Stories From the Shadows,” by James J. O’Connell, M.D. “Dr. Jim,” as he’s known on the streets of Boston, where for 30 years he has been bringing medical treatment to the homeless, is a scrupulous clinician and a skillful writer, and his book takes the form — outwardly — of a sequence of case histories and clinical encounters.
Patients are initially characterized by the physical or psychological symptoms they present — pulmonary tuberculosis, paranoid schizophrenia — and the various treatment options are explored. But then, as Dr. O’Connell digs into each patient’s medical history, and slowly illuminates his or her current circumstances, something else happens. A personality begins to emerge. A voice begins to be heard. And an interior — charged, spiritual, essential — begins to make itself known. It’s an extraordinarily instructive process. Here, one feels, is empathy, the real deal: not a rushed and sloppy embrace, or a sweaty effort to relate, but something alert, and expert, and observant, and profoundly respectful.