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The Alchemy of Illness


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About the Author

Kat Duff, born in Minneapolis, Minnesota, is a writer, essayist, and author of both The Alchemy of Illness (1993) and The Secret Life of Sleep (2014). She received her BA from Hampshire College and her MA in counseling and education from Southwestern College in Santa Fe, New Mexico. She resides in New Mexico where she works as a mental health counselor and child forensic interviewer.


Drawing on her own experience with CFIDS (chronic fatigue and immune dysfunction syndrome), the author of this collection of eight essays explores the mystery of human pain. ``Illness is a familiar yet foreign landscape,'' she writes. ``It remains a wilderness . . . despite its continuing presence in our lives.'' Duff spent ``the better part of two years'' in bed; during her sickness she read widely and voluminously, pursuing ``the meaning and purposes of illness.'' Bringing together insights from psychology, religion and anthropology, and explicating the words of shamans and philosophers from many cultures, Duff tracks the universality of illness and the curious contradictions--the sense of freedom, for example--that emerge in its midst. Her own healing, achieved through ``tedious, tenuous and life-giving labor,'' is a model of hope. Duff is a counselor in northern New Mexico. (Mar.)

Library of Congress-assigned subject headings (``Sick-psychology'' and ``Chronic fatigue syndrome-psychological aspects'') suggest the gist of this book, which was written by ``a white woman of sufficient means and mystical temperament nearing forty in twentieth century America'' and unfortunately stricken with chronic Epstein-Barr virus, the yuppie flu. However, the LC listings fail to bring out the parapsychological aspects--the ``alchemy'' of the title--that are a major part of the story. Duff writes, ``For the only way I can evoke and describe this ultimately ineffable dark heart of the universe, that black hole that opens up in illness, and begin to address the question of healing that rises from its center, is through storytelling: the telling of my dreams, the stories of goddesses, my experience and those of other sick people.'' Duff proceeds to recount her dreams. A shaman tells her that she was ``a sacrifice dying so that others may live . . . we would not call you sick, but wounded.'' This reader just doesn't get it. For ``Sick-psychology,'' Arthur Frank's At the Will of the Body ( LJ 3/15/91) and Norman Cousins's Anatomy of an Illness (LJ 9/1/79) are better titles.-- James Swanton, Albert Einstein Coll. of Medicine, New York

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