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The Arts and Medicine
October 1, 2019

Jamaica Kincaid’s “Girl” and the Challenge of Growing Up in Medical Training

Author Affiliations
  • 1Department of Emergency Medicine, Temple University, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
  • 2Lewis Katz School of Medicine at Temple University, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
JAMA. 2019;322(13):1238-1239. doi:10.1001/jama.2019.14003

Wash the white clothes on Monday and put them on the stone heap; wash the color clothes on Tuesday and put them on the clothesline to dry; don’t walk bare-head in the hot sun.

These are the opening lines of “Girl,” a story by author Jamaica Kincaid (The New Yorker, 1978). In it, Kincaid distills thousands of experiences from an Antiguan childhood into 49 instructions from mother to daughter. They are instructions for many tasks—for cooking, for survival, for household peace. They are delivered quickly, with precise detail, with smothering affection, without apology. They resonate, unsurprisingly, in our narrative medicine workshop with young physicians who are joining hospital teams, caring for patients, and learning a culture of medicine that asks them to rapidly adopt the knowledge, style, and practices of senior physicians they are working for. Kincaid offers the group a type of education not unlike their own training—a curriculum that can be unofficial yet forceful. With striking similarity to a young girl growing up in an adult world, new physicians join a system that demands they quickly learn the skills of their craft, the rules of survival, and the values they will fight for all while navigating their instinctive psychological responses to illness, injury, healing, injustice, and grief.

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