10/19/07

HOW TO HEAL BROKEN WORDS
Moravian professor Joanne McKeown repairs a remarkable story.

In 1836, French physician Charles-Humbert Antoine Despine was faced with a troubling case. An 11-year old child named Estelle, survivor of a cholera epidemic years before, had developed paralysis from the waist down. When his examination revealed no physical reason for her infirmity, Dr. Despine began to think the problem was a "nervous" disorder (to use the parlance of the time). Finding out from her mother that Estelle sometimes heard voices, Despine suspected that his patient might benefit from a new and controversial therapy he'd used successfully in other instances: animal magnetism, which would later be called hypnotism.

Dr. Despine, circa 1849

Despine was able to cure Estelle and more than twenty other patients by applying hypnosis in a methodical, gentle, and empathetic manner. In Estelle's case, he allowed her mother to be present and take notes during all therapy sessions, easing the girl's concern that she wouldn't remember what took place. A year after Estelle left his care, Despine published a monograph on the case, one of the earliest complete accounts of the use of animal magnetism to treat such a condition. And yet that paper is everything that Despine, as a physician, was not, says Joanne McKeown, associate professor of French at Moravian College. "It's disorganized and repetitive, with errors and inconsistencies; it's difficult to read." While his therapy helped his patients achieve wholeness, professor McKeown says, his account of the process is fragmented and uneven. Despine's uncharacteristic sloppiness was probably a result of his rush to publish, professor McKeown explains. "He knew it would be a valuable resource for the medical community," she says. "So he produced this cumbersome manuscript, didn't edit it, and his publishers didn't edit it either." The monograph included Despine's session notes and commentaries as well as the notes taken by Estelle's mother during the therapy. 

So Despine's monograph needed a literary therapist as badly as Despine's patients needed therapy from him. In a paper published recently in the International Journal of Clinical and Experimental Hypnosis (vol. 5, # 4, 2007), professor McKeown explains how she and two colleagues (Moravian emeritus professor of English Carole Brown, who acted as editor, and professor Catherine Fine, who acted as second translator) have created a reorganized, annotated translation that presents Despine's written words in a format consistent with the care and thoughtfulness of his medical practice. The translated monograph, expected to be published in 2008, will include images, a glossary and some related correspondences and ancillary articles. For professor McKeown, the project entailed several research trips to France, where she met and befriended Despine's descendents. "They gave us full access to their family archives," she says. In fact, a copy of the original, long out of print monograph was given to her by Despine's great- great- great-grandson Philippe. Getting to know the doctor by talking with his family, seeing where he lived and worked, and examining records and letters from his time helped professor McKeown preserve Despine's voice while clarifying his words. "That's always a concern of translator," she says. "You want to honor the integrity of this person's work."