Bookmarks Issue: 

Cures, Myths, Mysteries, Prayers, Diaries, Brain Scans, Healing, and the Science of Suffering

A-The Pain ChroniclesJournalist and author Melanie Thernstrom's previous books include The Dead Girl (1990) and Halfway Heaven: Diary of a Harvard Murder (1997). The Pain Chronicles began as an article for the New York Times Magazine on chronic-pain treatments, a subject the author knows well.

The Topic: No one is immune to pain, but what happens when that pain becomes the focal point of a person's life? In her study of pain and those who suffer (including the author herself), Melanie Thernstrom seeks answers. Her intimate renderings of her own experience are mingled with compelling, sometimes gruesome research examining the history of pain--from the Babylonians to Hippocrates to Civil War soldiers who chose suicide over the prospect of undergoing surgery without anesthesia. Even today's medicine, highly advanced in body imaging and in so many other ways, doesn't fully understand the problem. Pain is a daily reality for as many as 70 million Americans, Thernstrom writes, for whom "the disease of pain turns into the individual suffering of illness, an understanding of which requires studying the patient as well as the disease."
Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 364 pages. $27. ISBN: 9780865476813

Boston Globe 4.5 of 5 Stars
"If you've ever sat in a doctor's office and tried to explain how, where, and when something hurts, you have some notion of the energy, precision, and diligence necessary to produce this masterful overview of the subject. ... More than the fascinating and lucidly written science, the astonishing, gruesome history, the finely rendered tales of sufferers and researchers, it is Thernstrom's personal narrative that keeps the reader turning pages into the night." Alec Solomita

Miami Herald 4 of 5 Stars
"As the title indicates, Melanie Thernstrom's landmark book is a near-encyclopedic coverage of pain. ... Thernstrom writes evocatively about pain in history, art, religion and literature, but when she focuses on people and how pain has reshaped and warped their lives and senses of self she writes with fervor." Susan Miron

NY Times Book Review 4 of 5 Stars
"Thernstrom's passion and intellectual curiosity are infectious. ... The Pain Chronicles is ... a sophisticated, elegantly compiled treatise--as wide-ranging, complex and defiant as pain itself." Robin Romm

Oregonian 4 of 5 Stars
"[Thernstrom] covers vast swaths of history, culture, religion and science in short, accessible and beautifully sequenced chapters. If you're one of the 70 million Americans who suffers from chronic pain or has witnessed others' suffering, this book offers an illuminating journey toward new vision and possible relief." Joanne B. Mulcahy

Wall Street Journal 4 of 5 Stars
"If readers one day look back on chronic pain with something like the horror elicited today by Fanny Burney's description of un-anesthetized surgery, The Pain Chronicles will help them to understand not just what chronic pain felt like but also how medical science made a start at eradicating it." Wes Davis

Dallas Morning News 3.5 of 5 Stars
"[Thernstrom] presents an intermingling tale of the science and culture of pain, sure to be eye-opening to anyone who has not suffered chronically. ... [Her] narrative would be strengthened by a more international perspective, as European researchers are at the forefront of investigation along with Americans." Alexandra Witze

New York Times 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Melanie Thernstrom is such an engaging and intelligent writer that I remained intrigued with her investigation even as I disagreed with some of her reportorial choices. ... I was dismayed to discover that she found no remedy and that, for the time being, she and millions of others will continue to suffer from chronic pain." Helen Epstein

Seattle Times 3.5 of 5 Stars
"While impressive in its scope of research into literature, history, art, religion and other disciplines, this book is strongest when it considers the science and present-day medical challenges of pain management. References from Thernstrom's ‘pain diary' keep it real and accessible." Kimberly Marlowe Hartnett

Critical Summary

The Pain Chronicles is a tale of two books: one a broad-brush study of pain throughout the ages in literature, religion, history, art, and philosophy; the other, remarkable insight into the ravages of pain on the individual and the earnest (if hit-and-miss) efforts of modern science to handle chronic pain. An accomplished science writer, Thernstrom neatly balances her own story within the larger context, dividing the book into sections on pain as metaphor, history, disease, narrative, and perception. Some critics found Thernstrom's close-up work less effective than the history. "While her physical descriptions are often precise," Robin Romm writes, "she frequently blurs the boundary between romantic and physical pain, to sometimes melodramatic effect." Others commented that Thernstrom gives short shrift to Eastern medicine. Still, critics agree that the book is engaging and passionate.