The Distressed Body: Rethinking Illness, Imprisonment, and Healing

By Drew Leder. University of Chicago Press, 2016. 304 pages. $30/paperback or eBook.

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To be human means to lead both a cerebral and a corporeal existence. The latter is easily forgotten by those of us whose pursuits are primarily intellectual and whose pastimes are electronic. Adults in particular may feel like walking, talking heads most of the time. Drew Leder invites us to take a long and paradoxically intellectual look at the other half of the equation: our animal bodies.

Leder approaches the subject as a philosopher and professor. His academic writing style is demanding. If you are not in the mood for words like hermeneutics and phenomenology, or for references to Kant and Descartes, this would not be the time to pick up this book. But if you are ready for serious study of the interaction between our physical existence and our mental and social constructs, The Distressed Body will challenge assumptions you never even knew you had.

The first few chapters are concerned with our relationship to our bodies in the face of disease. As a rheumatologist, I found his exploration of the experience of pain to be highly illuminating. Patients often accuse their doctors and families of not understanding what they are going through, while they themselves are confused by what they are feeling. With Leder’s guidance, informed by his own perspective as a physician but also as someone who has experienced neuropathic pain, the reader comes to appreciate the manifold nature of physical distress and what it does to our brains as we are confronted by the reality of our embodiment. There is comfort in making sense of the pain and coming to see that it can be borne.

The health story continues with a general analysis of our medical system and the tension between reveling in its contributions to our happiness and decrying its objectification of the human body. Our culture often regards the body as more akin to a machine than to an animal, made up of cogs and itself a cog in the economic system of healthcare. Leder suggests that rethinking the body and the entire material world as wondrous gifts could align our consumption and production of healthcare with our values.

The objectification of the human body is carried a step further by our penal system, which removes all control of their own bodies from the prisoners and treats them “like animals.” Although earlier in the book Leder had described his own medical experiences in dispassionate terms, when it comes to the tragedy of incarceration, passion must break through. Leder taught philosophy in a Maryland penitentiary and invited the participants to represent their experiences in their own words, which they do to great effect. We learn of the many ways that imprisonment distorts one’s self image and sense of space and time. We also hear their conclusions about the elements that would be needed to transform prison into a healing environment: hope, growth, recognition of merit, individuality, and community.

In factory farms, Leder finds the ultimate expression of being divorced from our bodies. Animals themselves are treated not as animals but as machines, inanimate slaves to human economics. By allowing ourselves to become oblivious to their distress, we inflict untold suffering on billions of beings in ways that would be considered criminal if applied to a pet dog or cat. This has profound implications for our treatment of the rest of the living world as well.

The book ends “on a positive note, examining how a reclaiming of a close corporeal bond with the natural world can help us revitalize the human world. Along the way, we discover that these are not two different worlds.” It is in the intersection between animals and humans that we catch glimpses of our own complete nature. Leder refers to the transformative experience of shape-shifting, which others would refer to as the spiritual experience of our connectedness to others. By feeling those connections and rethinking our assumptions, we may open ourselves up to possibilities for a society that makes room for all the inhabitants of our rapidly shrinking planet.

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