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Berman, J. (2005). Signifying Pain: Constructing and Healing the Self through Writing. Judith Harris. Albany: State University of New York Press. 2003. xv + 304 pp. $81.50 (hc), $27.95 (pb).. Am. Imago, 62(1):133-136.

(2005). American Imago, 62(1):133-136

Book Reviews

Signifying Pain: Constructing and Healing the Self through Writing. Judith Harris. Albany: State University of New York Press. 2003. xv + 304 pp. $81.50 (hc), $27.95 (pb).

Review by:
Jeffrey Berman

Signifying Pain is one of a growing number of books that explore the parallels between the “talking cure” and the “writing cure.” It is perhaps the most impassioned of these books, written by a poet and scholar with a linguistic brilliance that few can match. Noting in the Preface that in a “Post-Freudian age in which the ‘talking cure’ has begotten a ‘writing cure,’ more writers analogize personal pain and political horror in an attempt to record and renovate the self through a shared language of suffering” (xi), Judith Harris demonstrates how many poets have transmuted private pain into enduring art.

The Introduction defines clearly the theme of the book. “Writing about painful experiences defends against world-dissolving powers that often accompany trauma, depression, and mourning” (1). She might have added that writing about suffering also defends against potentially word-dissolving powers, since language fails to capture the depths of pain into which artists often must descend. Writing about painful or shameful issues is inherently risky, both for the writer and reader, and one can never be sure whether such writing or reading will lead to (re)traumatization or recovery.

Harris offers different perspectives throughout the book, including those of a literary critic, poet, teacher, and a person who has had more than her share of suffering. Common to all these perspectives is a belief that “constructing and healing the self is a matter of using our own stories to build a sense of who we are, and then using who we are in stories as a means of change and possibility” (8; italics in original). She begins with a discussion of the early twentieth-century American writer Charlotte Perkins Gilman, whose masterpiece “The Yellow Wallpaper” prefigures autobiographical stories about mental illness.

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