I am a cultural historian and literary critic on the faculty of the Feinberg School of Medicine, Northwestern University. I teach storytelling to medical students, because that's one way to help them learn to listen skillfully to patients' stories. I also try to help both students and supervising faculty to survive the process of thesis-writing in medical humanities and bioethics. I get to eavesdrop on some amazing work.

      I have scholarly education, but I'm not a scholar. That is, I don't write for other scholars on the highly specialized topics that scholars pursue. I did that for a while, I admit. It was fun at first, but soon enough I recognized that it wasn't right for me. I needed to do something with my talents and my interests that would be more immediately useful to more people. And so, these days, when people ask me at parties and so forth what I write about, I say I'm interested in the language ordinary people use to talk about ethical issues. We inherit this language. It has a backstory. And I'm fascinated by that backstory. I think that knowing a little bit about our own cultural history can help any of us to become more conscious of the cultural pressures we are facing today. That can help us to make better decisions.

      Consider this: We all know that everyone is "culturally situated." We know that everyone's thinking is shaped by cultural context. It's easy enough to see the influence of cultural context on thinkers a thousand years ago, or even a century ago. But it's a lot harder to recognize how all those same pressures influence our own thinking. Each of my books sets out to explore some aspect of those pressures—especially the pressures that wake us up at three in the morning. There are ethical issues that have no easy-and-obvious resolution, and these issues put remarkable pressure on language. It's hard to find the right words to use to ask the right questions about these issues. Issues like money. Sex. Relationships. Success. Religion. Religion? Good heavens, there's an issue. Religion.

      When it's hard to find words for what's haunting us, we turn to metaphor. We may not be aware of doing so, because metaphor is intrinsic to language. It's everywhere. And it can be invisible. But as a literary critic, I'm trained to spot it. These buried metaphors tend to have the most colorful backstory of all.