Why Emily Dickinson was writing narrative medicine

Because I could not stop for Death – 

He kindly stopped for me – 

The Carriage held but just Ourselves – 

And Immortality.

We slowly drove – He knew no haste

And I had put away

My labor and my leisure too,

For His Civility – 

We passed the School, where Children strove

At Recess – in the Ring – 

We passed the Fields of Gazing Grain – 

We passed the Setting Sun – 

Or rather – He passed us – 

The Dews drew quivering and chill – 

For only Gossamer, my Gown – 

My Tippet – only Tulle – 

We paused before a House that seemed

A Swelling of the Ground – 

The Roof was scarcely visible – 

The Cornice – in the Ground – 

Since then – ‘tis Centuries – and yet

Feels shorter than the Day

I first surmised the Horses’ Heads

Were toward Eternity – 

Looking at the biography of one of the most effectiveness poetess to write about Life and Death and Immortality, or about filling the void by using the  dream, or about her pain and suffering in such a sophisticated and ironical way, Emily Dickinson, we discover that she was affected by one of the mental illness syndromes that now has the privilege of a Japanese name: Emily Dickinson was suffering from the Hikikomori syndrome, literally “pulling inward, being confined”, withdrawing from social life: she spent her life almost closed in her room, avoiding contacts with the external world.

Emily born at Amherst, received her education at Amherst Academy, in Massachusetts, for seven years: though the precise reasons for Dickinson’s final departure from the academy in 1848 are unknown; theories offered say that her fragile emotional state may have played a role and/or that her father decided to pull her from the school.  She left the college when she was a teenager, asked the permission to her father to do something that the Hikikomori teenager do nowadays: to stay up in un the middle of the night, from 3 am to 5 to compose poems, and to sleep during the day.  She had the same symptoms that the Hikikomori youth has; the idea of not being beautiful enough, witty enough and prepared for life to quit her family and to launch herself in the possibility of building her new family.

The astonishing thing is that she lived almost more than thirty years in this condition because she died quite late for her century and her compromised illness: at 56 years.

She was also suffering from a kidney disease, that brought her also some seizures, loss of consciousness, and pain. She was surrounded by a lovely and at the same time an ambiguous family: her mother was a constantly depressed person, her father was a follower of  illuminism, trying to move one from the puritans point of view, however with a very straightforward and harsh character, her brother was a double-sided man with an official wife and a semi-official lover and, her sister,  Viviana, the one that only we would call today “the caregiver”, was the person who challenged her life in her choice of isolation, on her vision of life and death and on her values. Emily the utmost introverted, Lavinia the utmost extroverted. Lavinia is the person to whom Emily was and should be still now, in her immortal verse, the most grateful to. Her sister not only stood by her side during her difficult life but discovered and published all the more than sixteen hundred poems, almost title less.  that Emily wrote. The poetess, in her life, head the honor to see only seven of her poems published and she was quite objected by the critics of that period, labeling her as the poetess of unhappiness.

Indeed, she was very sensible and touched by the deaths of people close to her family and within her family:  Civil War was on in the USA, with blood which was poured daily between North and South. Emily could not stand all of this death. She tried to find shelter in love, mainly through love letters, caused by her isolation, but she kept falling in love with wrong men, either married man (reverends) or not accessible ones, showing, on my opinion, the unconscious willing, to suffer from the fact to be not returned back her feeling.

However, living in her parallel world, she was able to build despite all her pain and frailty of inadequacy, a strong world of her own faith, which goes far beyond the traditional puritans sermons of that age: she was able to find the spirituality in Nature, in usual daily simple things, in no decoration style, giving it up to laces and embroideries, dressing only white clothes. As her verse, so clean and dry, with no decoration.

To make a prairie it takes a clover and one bee,

One clover, and a bee.

And revery.

The revery alone will do,

If bees are few

Simple, so much advanced in her style, fragmented, that anticipates the modern way of being a poet: she profoundly influenced the direction of 20th-century poetry.

Why reading Emily? For aesthetic pleasure. For that she is able to comfort us, to overcome Death. For that, she is able to say that every sorrow is not useless. For her irony. I found a lot of irony in her verse:

I’m Nobody! Who are you?
Are you—Nobody—too?
Then there’s a pair of us!
Don’t tell! they’d advertise—you know!
How dreary—to be—Somebody!
How public—like a Frog—
To tell one’s name—the livelong June—
To an admiring Bog!

Being Nobody…. Has some advantages: escapes from the boring and annoying thing to appear, to have a name, to have an identity, to be famous. Like a frog in a pond….

Perhaps youth affected by the Hikikomori syndrome, mainly youth, is the expression, the embodiment of the disease of our society, in which one has to be famous, rich, and beautiful. Emily is teaching us that sometimes being Nobody gives to us many many possibilities of a happier life that to continue the parade of the Frog which keeps on telling name and role to everybody.  Instead of studying now the Hikikomori people to understand their narratives, on Nature, recently they have published something which is very related to Which came first? The chicken or the eggs? The researches found out that in the Hikikomori group the level of HDL (the good cholesterol) is lower than in active students: and they call it prognostic factor. It is quite known in the scientific literature that HDL arise when people are practicing active sports, and certainly, this is not included in the Hikikomori profile. The low level of HDL, therefore, might be considered as a consequence and not a risk factor for becoming a withdrawal from the world. Emily also should have had a very low level of HDL, since she barely left the room, and she was eating her meals at her desk where she was writing.

Emily published only even poems all over her life: she did not want to become famous, she wrote because for her it was therapeutic, the same as Virginia Woolf did.  She did narrative medicine while writing, without knowing it. This is the way she describes her epileptic seizure:

I felt a Funeral, in my Brain,

And Mourners to and fro

Kept treading – treading – till it seemed

That Sense was breaking through –

And when they all were seated,

A Service, like a Drum –

Kept beating – beating – till I thought

My mind was going numb –

And then I heard them lift a Box

And creak across my Soul

With those same Boots of Lead, again,

Then Space – began to toll,

As all the Heavens were a Bell,

And Being, but an Ear,

And I, and Silence, some strange Race,

Wrecked, solitary, here 

And then a Plank in Reason, broke,

And I dropped down, and down –

And hit a World, at every plunge,

And Finished knowing – then –


Amazing, the clues that she gives to us to understand Epilepsy: for her, to whom rational mind was a real value against the short-sighted of dummy religions, to have a “momentary eclipse of reason” was life to have a funeral of her brain.

This is to say that narrative medicine was never invented by somebody: but everybody who wrote about their illness, or told, or composed a music out of it, or painted, or sculptured, whatever they did, yes, they transformed the Untold in told, creating narrative medicine, a heritage of humankind.


Here, the entire collection of Emily Dickinson’s poetry, available for free in pdf format.

Good Holidays everyone!


Written by

Epidemiologist and counselor – 30 years of professional life in health care. Classic humanistic background, including the study of Latin and ancient Greek, followed by scientific academic studies, chemistry and pharmacology. First years of career, in private international environment. I worked in medical research, moved to health care organization, getting academic specialization in Epidemiology. Later, in consultancy and health care education. Counselor with transactional analysis orientation. Currently, director of Innovation in Health Care Area of Fondazione ISTUD, an independent not for profit Italian Business School with an humanistic approach acknowledged by the Italian Ministry of Researech.. Active member of the board of Italian Society of Narrative Medicine, tenured professor of Narrative Medicine at Hunimed, Milan, and in 2016, referee for World Health Organization for “Narrative Method in Public Health.” Writer of the book; “Narrative medicine: Bridging the gap between Evidence Based care and Medical Humanities,” edited with Springer and of international publications on narrative medicine in scientific journals. Last book “The Languages of care in narrative medicine: words, space and sounds in the healthcare ecosystem”. Lecturer in different international contexts from Academy to Public and Private Foundations.

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