head cases


In general, we don’t enjoy hearing about other people’s illnesses. If you say, “How are you?” to an acquaintance or a new friend, you want to get back a pat “Fine,” not some lengthy disquisition on the latest ache or pain. The exception to this rule occurs when both people have something wrong with them: In that case, a person is willing to listen for a while so that he can later work off his own complaints. (The late Gardner Botsford called such encounters among his old-men circle of friends “organ recitals.”)

Reading is a different matter, apparently. People seem to have a nearly unlimited appetite for consuming published medical tales. These range from the inspirational to the bizarre and can be written by cancer survivors, emergency-room doctors, hospice nurses, grieving relatives, drug addicts, philosophically inclined diagnosticians, and sufferers from a wide variety of mental-health complaints. In most cases, the allure is somewhere between a car accident’s and a mud fight’s. We seem to enjoy (pace Susan Sontag) regarding the pain of others.

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