The Ethical Storyteller: How Carl Elliott Illuminates Injustice Through Narrative

Stylized portrait of Carl Elliot

Carl Elliot knows how to tell a great story. He is a prolific author, a doctor, and a professor of many things. He is a bioethicist, a historian, and a philosopher, and like those fields of study, human lives are at the center of his written work.

Elliot creates for his readers a palpable experience as he jumps from personal anecdote, to horrifying historical accounts, and on to unfiltered quotes from suffering interviewees. This repeated pattern ensures the common thread of humanity is never lost in his exploration of past and present medical injustice.

Whistleblowers – those few who call out injustice in their line of work – are the unsung heroes of his most recent work. The overused hero metaphor is fitting as Elliot’s narratives unfold like a perilous adventure. Like meek hobbits from the Shire, his heroes are the unassuming everyman who move not out of self-interest, but because of the personal implications of their choice to act or not.

Opposite the heroes in Elliot’s narratives are equally vivid villains that take on forms as callous individuals or immovable decades-old industries and institutions. He pulls no punches in describing such characters like those in the Watergate scandal. In his essay “Why They Blow the Whistle,” he writes, “The villains were mythic: the sneering John Ehrlichman, the stone-faced John Mitchell, the super-square Bob Haldeman with his military brush-cut, and of course, the Dark One himself, sweating in the Oval Office and cursing the hippies.“

However, he is careful to remind his readers how distinctly un-Hollywood these true stories are. Rarely is their glamour involved. In modern medical research, patients are still treated inhumanely, regularly get sick, and occasionally die. They take on poorly understood risks as a means to live or with some sense of duty to society. Peter Buxton’s blaring Klaxon went unheeded for years as he tried to draw attention to the notorious state-run Tuskegee syphilis experiment that infected hundreds of unwitting black subjects over several decades. His name was seldom mentioned even after the story finally broke. For others, blowing the whistle meant being ostracized, losing friends, and ending careers.

The history of medical research is ugly and, in many instances, still is. Elliot does not spare his reader from the gruesome details and frequently uses direct quotes from those involved to illustrate this point. Far from the sterilized language so common in medical contexts, Elliot shares Buxton’s first-hand experience with Tuskegee patients. “Men could get a sore that would scare the hell you of you,” Buxtun says. “One of them looked like a dog had taken a bite out of a weenie.” While Elliot supports some of his writing with statistics, with such testimony he counterbalances the inherent abstraction in burying lives behind numbers.

In Elliot’s hero’s journey, rarely is there resolution to their crisis. Rarely is there reward at the end. Our expectations are subverted when we learn the heroes and victims in his stories suffer martyrdom or horrible tragedy. This stark reality leaves us uncomfortably asking why and how could such a thing happen!? It drives us to ask what we would do in the same situation. It demonstrates how rare such heroic action really is, even when the horrors of injustice seem clear as day.

Medical injustices seem unassailable when they are mired in layers of systemic complexity and perpetrated by those in authority. Elliot’s ability to draw his readers into the story goes beyond highlighting problems in the system. By grounding us in his own investigative journey, by helping us relate to society’s heroes and loath its villains, his call to action is not so much spoken as felt.