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  • BIOETHICS FORUM ESSAY

Beach Blanket Bioethics 2009: Pure Dead Brilliant

Denise Mina is ABD – all but the dissertation. Her acclaimed psychological thrillers grew out of her sidelined dissertation on the ascription of mental illness to women in the criminal justice system: according to her Web site, she misspent her grant money and wrote a novel instead. This novel, Garnethill (1998), grew into a trilogy featuring Maureen O’Donnell as a woman with a history of trauma and mental illness, interacting with the criminal justice system as witness, suspect, critic, and citizen.

The Garnethill trilogy makes for intriguing narrative ethics. Do we trust Maureen when she’s conscious of lying because we believe in her sanity and accept her explanation for why she lies, and then mistrust her whenever her grip on reality seems to slip? How do the health care settings – psychiatric hospitals, day treatment centers, mental health clinics, shelters – in which many characters are introduced play with our assumptions about what these characters are capable of doing or thinking?

These novels describe many relationships involving women as caregivers – within families, among friends, between more functional and less functional patients, between burned-out professionals and clients. One of Mina’s gifts, perhaps reflecting her research background, is to describe the prickliness of the ethics of care within these relationships. As a deinstitutionalized mental patient tells trying-to-be-helpful Maureen, you can’t turn up at my house and ask me questions – I’m not your client.

Glasgow – its geography, speech, class structure, and notorious health problems (a sudden fatal heart attack is described as “the Scottish death”) – is a huge character in these novels. If you know that city, read the Garnethill trilogy with your A-Z map on hand. I misspent my own grant money going to the cinema in the real-life neighborhood of Garnethill, but have still not figured out how to turn my dissertation into crime fiction. Auch, well.

Published on: September 2, 2009
Published in: Bioethics

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