Part cultural history, part literary criticism, and part memoir, A Body Made of Glass is a definitive biography of hypochondria.
Caroline Crampton’s life was upended at the age of seventeen, when she was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a relatively rare blood cancer. After years of invasive treatment, she was finally given the all clear. But being cured of the cancer didn’t mean she felt well. Instead, the fear lingered, and she found herself always on the alert, braced for signs that the illness had reemerged.
Now, in A Body Made of Glass, Crampton has drawn from her own experiences with health anxiety to write a revelatory exploration of hypochondria—a condition that, though often suffered silently, is widespread and rising. She deftly weaves together history, memoir, and literary criticism to make sense of this invisible and underexplored sickness. From the earliest medical case of Hippocrates to the literary accounts of sufferers like Virginia Woolf and Marcel Proust to the modern perils of internet self-diagnosis, Crampton unspools this topic to reveal the far-reaching impact of health anxiety on our physical, mental, and emotional health.
At its heart, Crampton explains, hypochondria is a yearning for knowledge. It is a never-ending attempt to replace the edgeless terror of uncertainty with the comforting solidity of a definitive explanation. Through intimate personal stories and compelling cultural perspectives, A Body Made of Glass brings this uniquely ephemeral condition into much-needed focus for the first time.
In this riveting, genre-bending memoir, journalist Crampton (The Way to the Sea) traces the cultural and historical lineage of hypochondria. Pulling from ancient medical sources, film, literature, and modern psychiatric texts, Crampton attempts to demystify the condition, also known as health anxiety, which she's struggled with for decades. At 17, Crampton was diagnosed with a rare form of blood cancer and underwent intensive treatment. After doctors told her the cancer had been eradicated, it returned. The experience left Crampton certain that disaster was always around the corner, and here she contextualizes her persistent anxiety with discussions of Marcel Proust's potentially psychosomatic asthma, the allure of googling one's symptoms, and more. Seamlessly blending personal narrative with cultural investigation, Crampton traces the evolution of hypochondria from a physiological diagnosis in ancient Greece to a psychological one in contemporary culture, and links the ever-questioning sufferers of the condition to other knowledge-seekers throughout popular history, including Charles Darwin and Virginia Woolf, whose own hypochondriac tendencies were sometimes attributed to their "brilliant but overactive" minds. "Hypochondria only has questions," Crampton writes, "never answers," and her narrative follows suit, delivering few concrete takeaways. Still, it's a stimulating and rigorous take on a slippery subject.