This article analyses the literary representation of pain scales and assessment in two chronic pain narratives: ‘The Pain Scale’, a lyric essay by Eula Biss, and essays from Sonya Huber’s collection Pain Woman Takes Your Keys, and Other Essays from a Nervous System. Establishing first a brief history of methods attempting to quantify pain before my close reading, I read both Biss’ and Huber’s accounts as performative explorations of the limitations of using linear pain scales for pain which is recursive and enduring. Considering both texts as cripistemologies of chronic pain, my literary analysis attends to their criticism of the pain scale, including its implicit reliance on imagination and memory, and how its unidimensionality and synchronic focus prove inadequate for lasting pain. For Biss, this surfaces as a quiet critique of numbers and a disturbance of their fixity, while Huber’s criticism employs the motif of pain’s legibility across multiple bodies to spell out alternative meanings of chronic pain.
Crucially, this article proposes a crip and embodied approach for reading and responding to accounts of chronic pain’s measurement, including Biss’ and Huber’s literary accounts, and the biomedical account of pains scales which this article reads alongside them. The article’s analysis draws on my personal experience of chronic pain, neurodivergence and disability to demonstrate the generativity of an embodied approach to literary analysis. Rather than bowing to the impulse to impose false coherence on my reading of Biss and Huber, my article foregrounds the impact of the re-reading, misreading, cognitive dissonance and breaks necessitated by chronic pain and processing delays on this analysis. In bringing an ostensibly crip methodology to bear on readings of chronic pain, I hope to invigorate discussions on reading, writing and knowing chronic pain in the critical medical humanities.