Uncovering the rhetoric of an invisible and unspeakable disease

Graduate Student Spotlight: Molly Kessler

Molly Kessler

PhD student in Professional and Technical Writing

Dissertation: Bodily Boundaries: Inflammatory Bowel Disease and Rhetorical Enactments of Self

Update: Congratulations, Molly! She is now an Assistant Professor in the Department of Writing at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities.

My work explores the ways in which women with chronic illnesses discuss their diseases, bodies, and minds. Focusing specifically on Inflammatory Bowel Diseases (IBD), my research examines how patients justify, negotiate, and cope with their disease. Given IBD’s elusive, sometimes embarrassing, symptoms, IBD patients often find themselves in one moment struggling to convince healthcare providers their disease exists, and in the next moment, attempting to hide their disease from everyone else.

Patients with IBD commonly spend years assessing their symptoms, everyday experiences, medical test results, and physician examinations in order to reach an eventual diagnosis. And, when and if an official diagnosis is reached, how to treat IBD—physically, mentally, and emotionally—often remains an amorphous task. Even more, because IBD’s symptoms typically are invisible, patients must confront the difficulty of revealing or concealing their disease to family members, spouses, friends, coworkers, etc. Communicating about IBD, however, isn’t always confined to language. In fact, in many cases, patients rely on visual cues, such as displaying an ostomy bag or revealing abdominal scars, to express aspects of IBD.

Every different audience and context presents a new rhetorical dilemma in which sufferers of IBD must establish and maintain a different disease identity. They must persuade outsiders that their invisible disease is both real and valid, in addition to communicating any necessary accommodations. For instance, posting a picture of abdominal scars on Twitter requires different rhetorical finesse than justifying an unusual number of trips to the bathroom to your new boss.

My dissertation first traces the medical and social histories of IBD, examining the root of the stigmas surrounding IBD and analyzing the demand for visual evidence, particularly with chronic illnesses, in order for diseases to be deemed real. My chapters then turn to interview and observational data to further examine how IBD patients navigate life with IBD, from work to body image to sexual activity, and how patients with IBD selectively reveal and conceal their disease to specific audiences.

I hope my work sheds new light on the communication challenges IBD patients face and the rhetorical adaptations they have to develop to navigate their lives.