Brian Dillon explores the painful world of imaginary illness
Nine Tormented Lives
by Brian Dillon
Faber & Faber
$25.00 List Price
The fact of our embodiment is something we all face with greater or lesser anxiety. We navigate the world as both thinking minds and reacting bodies, with room enough for heady distortion between them. The body, in its declared state of health or illness, can be used to bolster our psychological defenses; a slew of diagnoses can be called on to explain why we’re not functioning as we think we should be. That said, though interested in all the mentally agitated, I have never felt particularly sympathetic to the suffering of hypochondriacs, having always consigned them to the vast corpus of the “worried well”—those who, having little real with which to concern themselves, treat their colds as near-fatal illnesses. Yet after reading Brian Dillon’s superb collection of essays, The Hypochondriacs, I will never look on this elusive condition (part of its intrigue is its amorphousness) in the same way again, if only because I see bits and pieces of myself writ large in the afflicted figures he deconstructs. Indeed, I can now add my own voice to the collective: L’hypochondriac, c’est moi.
Beginning with “A History of Hypochondria,” Dillon describes the way the disease (if disease it be) first presents itself as no more than a flickering suspicion—“Perhaps you and your body were alone in the bathroom, with leisure to examine your naked flesh, time enough for your fingers to find a lump where no lump should be”—that hardens with the passage of days into fear, then certitude. Once you are persuaded that you do indeed harbor the symptoms of a disease, everything begins to revolve around