Recovering women: autobiographical performances of illness experience

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Carr, Tessa Willoughby, 1970-

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This dissertation layers trauma studies theory with feminist theories of performance and autobiography to investigate how women's autobiographically based performances of illness experience disrupt and/or reinforce master discourses of medicine, identity, and knowledge. Feminist theories of performance and autobiography share with trauma studies the distrust of traditional frames and mechanisms of representation, and seek to discover new methods of interpreting experiences that lie "outside the realm" of normative discourse. These theories are further linked by their shared focus on agency and identity construction and an understanding of autobiography that emphasizes the limitations of language and memory which allows for aporia, contradiction, and dissonance, and the belief that testimony functions as a politicized performative of truth. Employing these theoretical perspectives, Carr investigates how these performances witness to radical reconfigurations of identity through the transference of trauma into conveyable life narrative -- even when those narratives falls outside the paradigm of traditional storytelling structures. Carr questions how the structures and content of these performances reveal what traumas are inflicted not only through illness, but also through treatment and care within the western medical model. Throughout the study Carr examines the moments when the cognitive structures of trauma are transmitted into performance through a variety of feminist and avant-garde performance techniques. Carr investigates the work of specific performers and contextualizes the performances within popular culture and medical discourse. Performances analyzed include; Robbie McCauley's Sugar, Susan Miller's My Left Breast, Brandyn Barbara Artis's Sister Girl, and Deb Margolin's bringing the fishermen home and Three Seconds in the Key. Carr questions how the formerly or currently ill female body performing in public disrupts notions of fixed and stable identity while examining the myriad identity constructions embedded within illness narrative. Rather than simplistic triumphant stories of individual cure and recovery, these complex expressions of traumatic experience reveal patterns of cultural oppression that keep the ill female body isolated and silenced. This study attempts to intervene in that silence by foregrounding these politicized performances.