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Category: Non-fiction, Memoir
Format: Audiobook (borrowed from library)
Content Warnings: Graphic descriptions of self-harm and suicide attempts, recounting of sexual assault and rape, child abuse, domestic abuse, addiction, trauma, violence, incarceration
After the frustrations and bureaucracy of working as a GP cause Dr Amanda Brown to impulsively walk out of her practice, she is looking for a change. Her compulsion to challenge herself and make a difference lands her where she never thought she’d end up – treating prisoners in some of Britain’s toughest criminal institutions.
The Prison Doctor is the story of the incredible people she meets, as well as a compassionate insight into the individual lives that are placed into the hands of the justice system – for better or worse.
First Page Impressions
In my day-to-day life, the prison population is not something I often think about, or if I do, it’s as one homogenized group of the ‘bad guys’. So I wasn’t expecting to become so emotionally invested, right from the start, in the stories Dr Brown recounts. She really humanises her patients, those people who tend to be portrayed as monstrous by the media.
I greatly admired Dr Brown as a narrator who could guide me through the strange, foreign and intimidating world of the prison system. She showed great strength when needed (for example, in her dealings with rowdy young offenders) but also never lost her determination to connect with her patients.
Final Page Reflections
Although The Prison Doctor is non-fiction, it perfectly exemplifies how stories can be more powerful than statistics. The encounter with one troubled, shy boy who grew up in care and had a gift for poetry left me in tears.
Other stories, especially from the women’s prison, exemplified the lack of support for society’s most vulnerable, creating a helpless cycle of re-offending which many prison leavers become stuck in.
Together, these individual stories form a quiet yet moving call for social justice.
Diversity and Representation
Throughout her career as a prison doctor, Dr Brown treats patients from all walks of life. Her memoir sensitively paints a picture of individuals and is never generalised or judgmental.
Although Dr Brown is from a very privileged background compared to the patients she treats, she is always aware of her own privilege and doesn’t take it for granted. Throughout the memoir, we also feel her becoming more connected with the world of the prison, rather than her complacent old dinner party circles.
- Social justice
- Shared humanity
Beyond the Book
As you can probably tell from the content warnings, The Prison Doctor is a heavy read. I often found it shocking and emotionally draining, in spite of only receiving these traumatic experiences second or third hand.
This got me thinking: to what extent am I reading to better understand a social issue, or for ‘trauma porn’ that reaffirms my status as separate from this dark and difficult world?
- What do you think are the ethical issues in a memoir that recounts deeply traumatic experiences from other people’s lives?
- Many of the patients Dr Brown treats have tragic life stories, and/or have become stuck in a cycle of re-offending because of the lack of support available when they leave prison. Did this book make you think differently about the criminal justice system?
- If you were working as a prison doctor, which elements of the job would you find most difficult? The exhaustion and constant adrenaline? The intimidating environment? Caring for people who may have committed terrible crimes? Frustrating bureaucracy?
“I cry a lot and it’s embarrassing, but the day I lose my compassion is the day I stop working”
Read if: You want to be given an unflinching and compassionate insight into the prison system.
If you enjoy medical memoirs, take a look at This Is Going to Hurt by Adam Kay.
Have you read The Prison Doctor? Do you have any other memoirs to recommend? Let me know in the comments – I would love to hear from you!