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Books, Journals, New Media
September 17, 2003

Medicine, CultureMedicine, Culture

Author Affiliations

Books, Journals, New Media Section Editor: Harriet S. Meyer, MD, Contributing Editor, JAMA; David H. Morse, MS, University of Southern California, Norris Medical Library, Journal Review Editor.

JAMA. 2003;290(11):1521. doi:10.1001/jama.290.11.1521-a

Better Than Well is a psychiatrist-ethicist-journalist's guide to the place of medical and quasi-medical enhancement technologies in contemporary American culture. On a much broader front, it raises many of the issues considered in Peter Kramer's Listening to Prozac and, before that, Ivan Illich's Medical Nemesis.

Carl Elliott begins with the seemingly innocuous—transforming speech—but recognizes that acquiring a different accent or, having spent the first portion of one's life as a man, learning to speak as a woman is no mere add-on. Such transformations are changes of identity—changes in who we see ourselves to be, which, is, of course, in dynamic relation with how others treat us. This is the theme for the other topics Elliott covers: the many medications that alter behavior (eg, Ritalin) or mood (and identity?); the cosmetics that alter skin and hair; the surgery that changes sex, prevents excessive blushing, alters racial or ethnic characteristics, or even allows some people to voluntarily become amputees to fulfill a desired body image. Besides the medical literature, Elliott draws from interviews with those who have had enhancements or are seeking them and on modern fiction (particularly the novels of Walker Percy), film, and other forms of popular culture.