Clown Doctors in New York City

1) This article proposes the similarity between a unit of professional clowns and shamans, both healers congruent with the folk sector of alternative medical systems. The clowns work in pediatric wards of New York City hospitals, where they interject “joy and mayhem” into the lives of patients, their families, and medical staff via performances of “funny-bone removals, squeakectomies, and bed-pandemonium” (page 462-463). The author argues that adoption of an additive, integrationist model of disease with collaboration between biomedical and complementary practitioners (like clowns) would facilitate better health outcomes.

2) Like shamans, the clown healers are “liminal figures” and “metacultural texts”, reversing and distorting cultural conventions, in the latter case to invoke hilarity, ameliorate pain with mental distraction, or provoke transference or catharsis through humorous devices such as satire and irony. Thus, their technique is production of emotional release by violating or inverting cultural rules. The healers assume clown doctor characters and use mime, farce, physical comedy, children’s theater, magic tricks, ventriloquism, and gags to produce psychological healing for patients and families.

They tailor their performances to the target audience age and affliction and supplement traditional biomedical care without being intrusive; they do not intervene while examinations are in progress, avoid quarantined zones, and employ sterile measures. Their social ranking is inferior to biomedical practitioners, as they must heed restrictions imposed by biomedical practitioners. Their skits are also aimed at patient empowerment, equalizing the doctor-patient power dynamic by parodying physicians and hospital procedures.

Furthermore, both shamans and clowns are viewed ambivalently, enter altered states of consciousness, and use music and rhythm to evoke a different reality. Importantly, they both entail a mystical element to which children are susceptible. For instance, with slight-of-hand, the clowns employ “symbolic healing” via manipulation of culturally-embedded symbols to “promote psychosomatic transformation,” by “enlisting the power of suggestion or placebo effect” (page 464, 469). They also mobilize psychosocial support, reduce family tension, and boost institutional morale by engaging all parties.

3) Although the clowns belong to the folk sector in their resemblance to shamans, they operate within the professional sector of health care. While practitioners in the folk sector share the cultural values of the society and view the body holistically (treating the psychological, spiritual and social realms and the subjective, experiential aspects of illness), the professional sector under which Western biomedicine falls delivers bioreductionist allopathic care geared toward clinical symptoms of disease entities based on a scientific, authoritative knowledge scheme. This latter sector predominates in developed and industrialized societies where the body is viewed through the lens of Cartesian dualism. Whereas practitioners in the professional sector are legally sanctioned and enjoy elite status and reputation, the clowns and other folk healers of traditional, non-Western societies are inferior on the social hierarchy and possess less prestige. The professional sector utilizes specific, compartmentalized approaches to somatic complaints, while the clowns and folk healers treat “the whole person, the social milieu, and the mental predicates of illness” (page 471).

5 thoughts on “Clown Doctors in New York City

  1. Drawing similarities from clowns in hospitals to shamans is very interesting and enlightening, I enjoyed your post and some of the conclusions you were able to make were rather eye-opening. It is hard to imagine a medical need for clowns but your post made me feel otherwise, lifting ones spirits can do wonders for the patient. Keeping a positive attitude can be just as important as the medical treatment itself, I feel like sometimes it can be the difference between death and survival. With my experience with different family who has had various illnesses, their happy and positive attitude on life is what kept them around for so long. When it comes to clowns being compared to doctors, I of course believe that they are in no way able to heal to the extent of a doctor, regardless of the similarities to shamans. In our culture, doctors are seen as the ultimate healer so in my mind, a clown does not come close. On the other hand, as far as effectiveness goes, I do believe that clowns can be effective in the healing aspect. Just as prayer can help one person, I believe that laughter, happiness and joy can help another.

  2. When I read this article, I saw many of the similarities with shamans that you mentioned. Even though the clown doctors and the shamans aren’t treating the disease within, they are still helping in the over all healing process. By keeping attitudes positive and light, I think it allows for a better healing environment. As the saying goes “laughter is the best medicine”. This is one way of putting that in to effect. Having gone through depression and having it effect other members of my family, I can say that the way you feel mentally can truly effect you physically. I think that since the clown doctors do work within the rules of the hospitals they can be deemed credible. They are helpful because they help to raise the overall attitude. The clown doctors remind me of “Patch Adams” and his philosophy of healing through humor. Even if the clown doctors may not be helping with healing diseases like cancer, they are helping with the illness. Many times knowing that we are sick makes us more sick, and the children in the hospitals sometimes aren’t allowed to live a healthy child’s life. The clowns can come in a give some aspect of that childhood back.

  3. I agree that shamans and these clowns fulfill a similar role to help the patient spiritually or psychologically. They both play their part to make the patient more amendable to the healing process and help assuage the patient’s fears, through mysticism in the shaman’s case, and humor in the clowns case. I especially liked how you looked at symbols being used to promote psychosomatic healing and the placebo effect. These both seem to have a tremendous impact on the healing process and the body in general. It shows that the mind can be a driving force in resisting illness, and its influence on the body is remarkable. And while the clowns are considered to be lesser healers in comparison to the biomedical doctors of the US, they still rate some degree of credibility just based on the fact that they make life more tolerable for patients. I am of the opinion that anything that enhances the patient’s standard of living while they are ill can be helpful in promoting the restoration of health. I am also a big fan of anything that will allow a sick child to experience happiness, especially if they are confined to be in a hospital, which to a child has to be one of the most terrifying experiences possible.

  4. I enjoyed reading your post and the conclusions you were able to draw about the clown doctors in New York City. Clearly, these clown doctors present a very different approach to healing than a biomedical physician. Where the traditional biomedical physician treats patients with pharmaceuticals, the clown doctors treat patients with silliness and laughter. For me, it’s hard to imagine a healthcare system where every hospital has a staff of clowns employed, as biomedicine is a much more prominent force in our Western culture. However, there is no denying that these healers are effective and legitimate. They help their patients mentally and emotionally, which can be equally important to biologically. It is important, especially for the young children, that they can keep a positive attitude. The clown doctors help make the sometimes frightening atmosphere of a hospital more cheerful and friendly, and thus more conducive to healing. I think a patient’s psychological outlook has a great impact on his or her ability to heal. This can be seen, for example, in the placebo effect; with a placebo, there is not pharmaceutical change induced in the patient, and yet in some cases it still contributes to healing by allowing the patient to be lifted emotionally and psychologically. In this hospital, the biomedical doctors and the clown doctors seem to complement each other in their healing focus areas. The clown doctors still aid in the healing process, they just approach it from a different perspective than do the biomedical doctors.

  5. In comparison to biomedical doctors, clown doctors are obviously less educated in the field of medicine. Society also probably views them as less credible. And when it comes to treating and curing disease, I would think most people would conclude they are not exactly effective. However, I do believe that as a scientific society, we r vastly ignorant to the effects of mood and its benefits to health. Yes, we hear about how having a positive attitude has made the difference in numerous cancer patients. Or even how being social and doing normal activities can help you recover faster from disease. We say things like these all the time, but I don’t believe we truly know why mood plays a role in recovery and health. We are aware of different chemical and hormonal aspects, but I really believe that we are nowhere near understanding the human psyche and its effects on physical health. So, in essence these clown doctors could be doing far more for patients than we can understand at this point and time. Bottom line, if clown doctors bring any kind of positivity or sense of enjoyment to ill patients, I can’t understand why anyone would be against their unique form of practice.

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