Autobiography of a disease

Recently, I have had two unplanned conversations with individuals who have experienced serious illness from bacterial infections. Like many of you, I’ve also come across media reports about current research that examines the causes of bacterial infections, as well as why there has been a rise in infections that are drug-resistant. In one such article in the New York Times published May 25, 2018, for example, author and journalist William D. Cohan wrote that bacteria resistance to antibiotics causes 23,000 deaths and $34 billion in financial losses each year in the U.S. A further 400,000 individuals are impacted by antibiotic-resistant food-borne bacteria each year (See Centers for Disease Control). Clearly this is a growing problem of immense concern. 

Patrick Anderson’s book (2017), Autobiography of a disease, takes an in-depth look at what it means to experience a life-threatening bacterial infection of the sort that is becoming an increasing problem. In 2003, Anderson became suddenly and violently ill. Within hours, he was admitted to hospital and was in a coma. This book is a moving account of what happened next. Trained as an anthropologist and performance scholar, over a period of 10 years, Anderson has used archival study of microbiology, his own diagnostic and treatment records, review of drug-resistant bacterial strains, along with interviews with medical professionals, patients and caregivers to write the story of what this kind of illness is like. The book is engaging to read and suited to a wide range of audiences, both academic and non-academic. For academic readers, Anderson’s book cites the work of new materialist scholar Karen Barad in the Afterword, opening up questions to do with how a study informed by new materialist theory might be represented. For non-academic readers, the writing is artful and engaging, yet down-to-earth. I could not put it down when I read it earlier this year.

In an unusual move, Anderson gives voice to the bacteria. For example, in one section, the fight against drug-resistant bacteria is evoked:

Some among you know of our power, and treat us as seriously – as honorably – as they treat you. Some among you spend their lives tracking and telling our stories. Some take us so seriously they spend their lives attempting to eradicate us, or some of us at least, from the planet. They know, of course, that such a thing is unlikely – impossible to prove, even if they thought they’d done it. But still they try. And still they fail – so pitifully that they jump scale, from the planet to a body, a single body. Imagine that: they set out to kill us off and then, realizing their farce, find ways simply to banish us from a single human body, one at a time. Soaps, wipes, medicines, materials, so many developed just to keep us at bay (p. 47).

The book is structured in six parts with a coda, as Anderson recounts his journey through a series of hospital rooms and multiple surgeries as he embarks on a lengthy period of recuperation. Throughout, we meet family members, mothers, nursing staff and physicians, friends and care-givers. This autoethnographic journey treats others with great care – as a reader I felt honored to learn about this experience, but did not feel like I was an ogling by-stander. Instead, I reflected on my own experiences with care-giving, and dealing with medical staff through loved ones’ illnesses. This book provides lots for anyone who has attended a loved one through extended illness and surgeries to reflect on.

From the moment I picked this book up, I was intrigued by the image on the cover of this book – it is a sculpture in wood, iron and copper entitled Martyr, by Icelandic artist Sigurjón Ólafsson. I wondered why this image was used – and was rewarded when Anderson provided an account later in the book, when he travels to Iceland.

Although I learned a lot about drug-resistant bacteria in this book, there is also a lot to learn about life in general. This is conveyed through stories about mothers, illness, love, care-giving, endurance, and recovery. For those of us who have good health — it is also a reminder to make every moment of life count.

I highly recommend this book. And the next time you use hand sanitizer, you may just think about the bacteria that surrounds us, and from which we try (in vain),  to rid ourselves.

Kathy Roulston


Anderson, P. (2017). Autobiography of a disease. New York & London: Routledge.


2 thoughts on “Autobiography of a disease

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s