Mahala Yates Stripling, PhD

RHETORICIAN • BIOETHICIST • BIOGRAPHER

CURRENT PROJECT

"YOUR SUBJECT IS A STORYTELLER":

the Life and Writings of Dr. Richard Selzer,

Who Transformed the Literature of Medicine

Richard Selzer is without question the most creative of the medical people writing today. A truly imaginative writer, he draws in a way from his medical experience, which is so concrete and immediately evocative. He’s poetic.

– Ed Pellegrino, Director of the Kennedy Institute of Ethics at Georgetown University

A word to my dear biographer: Your subject is a storyteller, one who rummages in his imagination, and uses whatever detritus he stumbles upon, to fashion his art. To insist upon what is and what may not be factual would, I think, not portray the man himself as he really is.

– Selzer to author, 2011

Mahala Stripling and Richard Selzer (1993)

Cushing/Whitney Medical Library

Yale School of Medicine

        In 1976 when I read Richard Selzer’s Mortal Lessons, I could not have known how it would change the trajectory of my life. This surgeon-writer mingled his poetic descriptions of the human body with grotesque details and engaging humor. Although this didn’t appeal to everybody, his words instantly captivated me.

        A creative writer, he knew “the facts are not always where the truth lies.” He witnessed his patients’ daily pain and suffering, knowing it was at the heart of humanity. Seeing the body as sacred space, he told their stories in a way that had joy and transcendence. “Man is not ugly, but Beauty itself,” Selzer wrote. And now this is how I see it as well.

        His compelling stories paved the way for others to write of the body in extremis and fueled the literature-and-medicine movement. In this technological age, it showed medical practitioners how stories could make their patients real again.

        Near the end of his life, I asked Selzer about his legacy. He acknowledged that his work, written decades ago, is used in anthologies and collections. “I have discovered that things I say are counted on by some people today,” he said modestly, and he felt pleased that some of it would survive for the next 100 years.

        Besides elevating into the spiritual realm patients who struggled with their health, he gave a greater perspective on contemporary issues in the field of bioethics. Proliferating programs, known as Health Humanities; Medicine, Literature, and Society; and Bioethics in Literature, draw from the evolving canon of literature and medicine, which is now used in two-thirds of the medical schools in the United States, with Selzer's stories and essays being a mainstay of the curriculum.

        Richard Selzer, a naturally curious man who spied on his patients, used his skills as a doctor to be a writer. This led to literary art that will far outlast the thousands of operations he performed over 30 years as a Yale-New Haven surgeon.

Mahala Yates Stripling, PhD

Jeff Coggins Photography

Mahala Stripling’s early life in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, was followed by a move to Fort Worth, Texas, where she earned four degrees from Texas Christian University (BA, MLA, MA, PhD).

After she lectured on her 1997 dissertation, Richard Selzer: the Pen and the Scalpel, in Yale’s Program for Humanities in Medicine, she began his biography. During this work-in-progress, seventeen excerpts appeared in such places as Columbia University’s Voices in Bioethics, Readerly/Writerly Texts, and Hektoen International. Other lectures include the American Society for Bioethics and Humanities, Stanford Medical School, and the University of Texas-Medical Branch in Galveston. With the cooperation of Selzer and the support of Yaddo, Helm, and UTMB fellowships, twenty-five years later she has a nearly complete manuscript of "Your Subject is a Storyteller."

Dr. Stripling, an ACBL bridge aficionado and master swimmer, is married to Jim Stripling, a Fort Worth attorney. They have two daughters and two granddaughters.