Book: Prozac Diary
Author: Lauren Slater
Type of book: Memoir, psychology, psychiatry, non-fiction
Why Did I Read This Book: I love tales of psychiatry and mental illness. I was one of those who was prescribed Prozac in the first wave of the drug’s popularity and like reading about how others responded or did not respond to the drug.
Availability: Published in 1998 by Penguin Books, you can get a copy here:
Comments: I think this book was probably more interesting 12 years ago. I am a pharmacological refugee and on a personal level find tales like Slater’s interesting, but I can also tell you that unless you have tinkered with the chemicals in your brain, unless you have walked down this road, this mild, ethereal and at times random memoir may not have any resonance. As interested as I am in memoirs of people who struggle with mental illness and the drugs used to treat mental illness, there were times I found this book less than gripping.
That is a problem with memoirs. A person’s life is of infinite interest to them but sometimes their life stories do not translate into an absorbing story for others. Couple that with the fact that psychopharmacology has changed dramatically not only since Slater was prescribed Prozac in the late 1980s, but also dramatically since this book was published in 1998, and you can see why this book may lack relevance now. This book almost seems quaint when one considers the intensity of the sorts of drugs available these days.
Slater suffered from a variety of mental illness symptoms when prescribed Prozac and her reaction to the drug was miraculous. She felt like an entirely new person yet felt like she was finally feeling like the person she was meant to be, which brings up all kinds of questions about identity and mental illness. If you have been mentally ill or depressed all your life and you suddenly feel like yourself after taking a medication, who is the real you? That is a question that those for whom medications work ask themselves routinely and it takes a strong writer to ensure this question does not sound like a cliche. Slater just isn’t that strong a writer.
Moreover, there are at times in this book when Slater shows a tendency towards the mystical, and while I understand the sort of miraculous nature of brain meds when they work properly, this book was often too airy for me. And god help me for saying this (or condemn me as the case may be), but the things that made Lauren Slater a mad woman and the things that distinguished her when well simply are not as interesting as some other similar memoirs out there. Marya Hornbacher, Elizabeth Wurtzel, Susanna Kaysen and even Sylvia Plath did it better. With better offerings out there, it is hard to recommend this book. I don’t want to perpetuate the idea that mental illness needs to be entertaining to be valid but it needs to be entertaining in order to make a good book. While what happened to Slater before she was medicated and after were of great interest to her, those experiences are not consistently interesting to the reader.
That having been said, Slater does make some interesting points that resonated with me. I have always been intensely annoyed by the story of Mary and Martha from the Bible and Slater has an intriguing take on how Prozac ended her endless Mary-like navel contemplation and turned her into a Martha who got things done.
According to conventional Christianity then, and probably Judaism too, Prozac is a conduit to sin because it makes you more attentive to the tasks, the tiny things, altogether less transcendent. But perhaps, as Merton might say, the truth is in the tiny things, which is why I have for so long used illness to avoid them. Daily tasks–washing, laundering, banking, baking–they force me to my flesh, to the feel of fingers in repetitive movement, to the sloughings and tickings, the burst of soap bubble, the death of a cell.
Anyone who has ever been so depressed that even taking a shower was difficult for them understands this. But it is still interesting nonetheless to see this struggle, this giving-up in life assigned a higher meaning than simply being so ill one cannot do anything but passively contemplate one’s misery.
I also found interesting Slater’s sense of how Prozac altered her creativity. “I will lose my ability to write/sculpt/paint!” We have all heard that old argument from every person who has ever been so in love with their mental illness that they assign it a specialness that becomes an excuse to keep themselves from getting better. I’ve used it myself.
It’s been almost a year now since I’ve composed a short story or a poem, I who always thought of myself as a writer, all tortured and intense… Basically good writing is intensity, pitch, sex. Raymond Carver used to say that sometimes, when he was deep into a poem, he would look down to find his hand cupping his balls. I’ve read that Prozac reduces the sex drive, so it would stand to reason that it might diminish the by-products of that drive as well…
Though I am no longer a person who uses drugs to pave the potholes in my brain (prescribed, recreational or liquid, as self-medication is so alluring to those with misfiring brains), I also no longer write fiction. I’ve tried and tried and tried but the active steps to being strong mentally have removed fiction from the table for me. I began my book review sites when it became clear that my stories would likely not come back and I needed to find a way to control words in some manner. I think this is an intriguing topic, the idea that all great genius comes from more than a small dose of madness, but Slater doesn’t spend as much time on this as I wanted to read. And in a way discussing the sex element of Prozac shows the age of this book. Since this book was published, we now have Wellbutrin to cut back the sexual side effects of antidepressants. Not that it works for everyone, to be sure, but in 1998 when this was published, SRIs were almost certain death to the libido.
I also appreciated how Slater addressed the idea of diminishing returns on Prozac. No one ever told me either that Prozac could one day stop working, which is a very real problem with the drug. Rather, the failure of Prozac to be a continual cure for my depression was used as prima facie evidence that I am bipolar (believe me, I am unipolar as all hell). That even today the potential that Prozac could stop working, which Slater experienced herself and shared plainly, is not understood or subject to misinterpretation by doctors, which is several different kinds of frightening.
But even though there were some elements of the book I could relate to, the fact is there were too many passages clogged with the mystical, like when Slater found some sort of otherworldly relevance to a street magician singling her out. Then there were just bizarre passages that added nothing to my understanding of Slater’s mental illness or how Prozac helped her. Take this passage, for instance (she is at a spring bath with women who see themselves as eunuchs):
And just for a moment she stood before us, shed of the fabric of water, utterly visible, so I could have maybe have seen the space between her thighs, a cold crotch or a pit of possibility. She faced me, mammoth, the sagging shelf of her breasts, and it was only there I dared to look, at the wizened nipples with dark hairs around them, black-lashed and bloodshot. Ugly.
Pardon me, but what the hell am I supposed to do with this passage and similar passages wherein Slater reveals a horror so unique to her and yet meaningless to me and possibly anyone else? Nice prose, but this is why I think you should read Marya Hornbacher and not this book. Hornbacher makes the unrelatable interesting in a way Slater cannot manage. Passages wherein Slater is made sad by a person’s double chin have nothing to do with her awakening or even point to the inner workings of her mental illness but rather read as jabs against those who were not slim, young and fit, no matter how sound or peaceful their minds may have been. There are far too many passages like this, uninteresting and at times ridiculous looks into Slater’s mind that ultimately made this book tiresome to read and seemed to have no purpose.
And this is just me reacting negatively to the attempted poetry of Slater’s writing, but I cringed when I read passages like this:
And to Susan I also want to say, “See. See me. This isn’t just Prozac. Or all Prozac. I am the girl whose hands are stained with purple juice, who spins over ponds, who is hock and horse as she jumps. I am lather.”
Some may find a lot of poetry and beauty in the above quote. I find it forced and precious and quite a bit of the book is written in this manner. This may be a journal in print but not every journal entry is worthy of publication.
So I guess what I am saying is that this book is not the worst book but not the best ever on the topic of mental illness and psychopharmacology. If you read it, you likely will not find it complete waste of time, but you may not find it wholly interesting and you likely will not experience any greater epiphany than that Prozac worked for some people. You may shake your head at some parts and wonder what the hell Slater was getting at and those may outnumber the times when you feel she completely nails an idea. I don’t think that is a large enough of a return for reading this book, especially when there are so many better books that explore mental illness and its treatment out there.
(When I was looking for a link to Slater, I found this article in which Slater is accused of making up quotes in a book she had published in 2004. I find this interesting, though I take it with a grain of salt.)