Rita Charon

American physician

Rita Charon (born in 1949) is an American physician with a doctorate in English literature who established the field of Narrative Medicine which refers to the training in interpreting literature and then applying that skill to understanding the accounts which patients tell.

Charon at the Association for Medical Humanities Conference, London, 2016
It's when you're out there, off the shore of the known, that you have to create.


  • I first used the phrase "narrative medicine" in [the year] 2000 to refer to clinical practice fortified by narrative competence-- the capacity to recognize, absorb, metabolize, interpret and be moved by the stories of illness.
  • What do I do with the paradoxes, the ambiguities, the contradictory stories from a family member, the gaps in memory, the fact that the stories change from month to month? What do I do with my doubt about the meaning of what I am hearing?
  • When doctors write, they too experience the discovery of learning what they know. It continues to astonish me that writing is an avenue to the "unthought known"-- that is, the part of knowledge that sits under awareness.
  • Our task as doctors, nurses, therapists, and ethicists is to learn each patient's personal language in its tenses, its images, its silences, and its tensions.
    • Time and Ethics, p. 68 from Stories Matter (2002)
  • ...the biggest challenge I had was to convince people that I wanted to listen to whatever they said. One lady said, "You mean you want me to talk?"
  • I meet with lots of pre-medical students now, and they show me their personal statement to get into medical school. They read the statement. It's all about wanting to help people, integrated care, and justice. I have to say "What about the science? Does the science interest you? Because if it doesn't, you're not going to do well."
  • I think my duty is to promote two things in my students: creativity and doubt....The creative person is able to venture into the unknown....And to tolerate doubt both requires and generates creativity. It's when you're out there, off the shore of the known, that you have to create.
  • Radical listening is the effort to be present, to bear witness, and to listen without your biases and assumptions. It's about curiosity, not judgment.
  • This isn't just about being a nice doctor or having a nice bedside manner. It's hearing and taking responsibility for improving access and equity, because it's in our power to do this.
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