Demons in the Age of Light by Whitney Robinson

This post originally appeared on I Read Odd Books

Book: Demons in the Age of Light: A Memoir of Psychosis and Recovery

Author: Whitney Robinson

Type of Book: Non-fiction, memoir, mental illness, psychiatry

Why Do I Consider This Book Odd: In a way it is not odd because psychiatric memoirs are thick on the ground these days. But in a sense this book is very odd because being given an invitation to look into the mind of a person actively suffering from schizophrenia is in and of itself a strange, unsettling experience.

Availability: Published by Process Media in 2011, you can get a copy here:

Comments: Just warning you now, dear reader, that this discussion is going to be one of my trademarked Very Long Discussions with Lots of Quotes from the Book, coupled with a very personal reactions to the text. For those who find a 8000 word or so discussion excessive, here is the tl;dr version: This is a very good book written by a very good writer and you should buy it and read it.

I read a lot of mental health and mental illness memoirs and this was the first one I ever considered odd enough to discuss here. I very nearly missed reading it. I had run into a spate of memoirs that left me cold, and had the online acquaintance who recommended the book to me and then sent me a copy offered it two weeks earlier than she did, I would have declined. But just before she discussed the book with me, I had finished a very good, very honest mental illness memoir, Stacy Pershall’s Loud in the House of Myself: Memoir of a Strange Girl. The offer to read the book came at the right time after the right book.

It would have been a shame to have turned down this book because of the often sorry shelf-company it is forced to share. And I don’t mean to demean the genre because people gets all kinds of help in all kinds of ways that I may find less than helpful. It’s just that lately some of the books I have read wore very thin for me. It seemed like the authors, mostly women, had romanticized their illness. To paraphrase Elizabeth Wurtzel, patron saint of fucked up women of a certain age, they had fallen in love with their illness. The devastation the disease wreaked on their bodies, their education, their relationships – it all was a back story to a fabulous disaster narrative.

Also there is a current theme in mental health studies that posits that mental illnesses, or neurodiversity, are a form of genetic selection for arts, letters and speculative science and therefore celebrate the conditions. I can see the logic. Not only is there a long record of acclaimed people who created great art and propelled science, but as a person with mental illness, I like to think that there is a purpose behind my at times terrible brain chemistry. But I am made uneasy by some of it because even though Van Gogh left behind astonishing paintings and Virginia Woolf left behind masterful prose and John Nash was a great boon to speculative physics, would any of us really want to live their lives? It’s all well and good to see the up side of having appalling brain chemistry, but I often fear that people who are suffering will read such examinations and decide that their affliction should not be treated, should not be seen as a disease that needs to be addressed in order for them to live the best life they can live. As much as I adore Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poetry, and I have no real way of knowing how much his deep depression truly affected his writing, thinking about the sorry end of his life makes it just a little harder to enjoy the beauty and truth of his words. Art that comes from a truly suffering person will always have a pall cast over it.

This book does not engage in the sort of celebration and art uber alles justifications for mental illness that I have encountered as of late. Whitney Robinson’s memoir gets everything right. She shows the wreckage. She shows how mental illness swooped down into her life and changed everything. A natural writer with a near-intimidating intelligence, Robinson tells the story of her illness, the demon that came into her brain, and how she came back out the other side. It is an erudite, honest, and at times darkly humorous look at what it feels like to have your brain behave in ways you have no control over. Schizophrenia is one of the hardest mental illnesses for people to truly understand, and Robinson writes a fascinating book that is never once a freak show. It is never an attempt to glorify conditions that can ransack a person’s life. This book is never a voyeuristic peephole into the at times salacious subject matter of mental illness.

It is a rare invitation to understand.

A Mind Apart by Susanne Antonetta

This post originally appeared on I Read Everything

Book: A Mind Apart: Travels in a Neurodiverse World

Author: Susanne Antonetta

Type of Book: Non-fiction, psychology, genetics, eugenics

Why Did I Read This Book: As a person who buys books with an almost indiscriminate abandon, I often find books on my “to-be-read” shelves and have little memory of buying them so I am unsure what initially drew me to this book. I read it after I found it when I was searching for a completely unrelated book. I tend to like narratives about mental illness so that was likely why I bought this book.

Availability: Published by Penguin Group in 2007, you can get a copy here:

Comments: Sigh… I think my love of books about mental illness and interesting mental states is pretty well established even though I have not been running this particular book site for even a year yet. I tend to cut books on these topics a lot of slack because people who have unique mental states also have a unique approach to writing. Sometimes you have to dig deep to come away with gems in such books, dealing with odd narrative streams or difficult prose, but more often than not gems are there. I suspect that for many Antonetta’s book has some gems, but overall, I found her narrative not worth all the digging. The structure of the book was often disjointed and rambling to the point that I found myself reading out loud in order to force myself to pay attention, and also to give the words some additional clarity. And worse, I often had no idea, even after reading aloud and concentrating deeply, what it was that Antonetta was trying to convey.

None of this should have been a surprise to me, really, because the first paragraph in the preface tells the reader very clearly that this is not a book written with us in mind, that this is a book that simply exists in its own right and it is our duty to make sense of it however we can.

I am asked, What is this book. And I want to say, Books are like children. They are what they are because they are not something else.

I find this to be the worst sort of speciousness. I suspect this may seem overly harsh, but everything is what it is because it is not something else. Evidently, the appallingly ugly light fixture in my dining room is like a child because it is what is is because it is not something else. And I guess I can say a disjointed, unclear book is a disjointed, unclear book because it is not a well-organized, coherent narrative?

Antonetta, a woman self-described with bipolar disorder, finds comfort discussing aspects of her mental illness with friends and those relationships sustain her. This is not a memoir of mental illness, though the approach is intensely personal and often involves a lot about Antonetta and those she knows. Rather, it is a book that makes assertions about the natural selection involved in mental illness, how the mentally ill may be responsible for shaping a surprising amount of the world, and that any genetic attempts to eliminate people who have mental disorders, autism or similar – the neurodiverse minds among us – could be disastrous for the entire world.

Yet despite this being a book with such a specific theme, the personal descriptions and her personal life were a large part of the book and the descriptions of her mind and the minds of her neurodiverse friends bordered on exotica. Though this is definitely, as Antonetta explains, “a book about different kinds of minds,” it is also a book about minds that call out to be understood in a way that eludes this book. I often felt underwater reading, as so much is hurled at the reader without a context outside of the ideas in Antonetta’s head. Little she says helps enable us to put these unique minds she knows in a thoughtful perspective. For example:

I e-mail N’Lili–who’s a many-head, or a man with different people inside him–up to three or four times a day. They are married to my cousin. I write them separately and together: in response they might say THIS IS US OR THIS IS VICKI OR ANNIE ASKED ME TO ASK YOU SOMETHING, LOVE PEG. WE ARE CHILDREN, they say, though they live in an adult male body

Then there is this:

[Discussing an e-mail with a friend who has Asperger’s] We talk like this a lot. Do you feel the number five is brown? Can you hold it when it comes to you, unassuming in its brownness? How does everyone resist the lusciousness of others’ minds, moving around us, with us, all the time, like a gallery of veiled art.

I think that Antonetta’s approach to her neurodiversity and the neurodiversity of others is a lovely trait. She sees neurodiversity as something that is necessary in life, possibly a function of evolution, providing necessary differing mindsets important to the arts and sciences. But part of this makes me nervous because for every person like N’Lili who functions and embraces his or her dissociative disorder as a form of neurodiversity, there is a woman like my roommate in psych lockdown who is jumping from one consciousness to the other, in a state of terror, unable to work, fearing homelessness and further alienation from her family. For every person who wonders if five is brown, there are people for whom mental illness, or neurodiversity, is a nightmare from which they will never wake.

I know Antonetta knows this fact. She has suffered and still does. And I’m glad she came out the other side with this sort of mindset. But I think I resent the idea that mental illness is a “lusciousness” because for many of us, mental illness is not an evolutionary step in natural selection but is a condition that drags us down and keeps us down. I assert that there is no “normal” mind, and we all have to find our own path through mental illness. But for me, mental illness has prevented me from doing what I want in the world, not served as alternative to regular thinking that enhanced the world around me. I suspect most people who have walked this path tell stories similar to mine.

But it is an interesting thought, that neurodiverse people, exhibit a form of natural selection. That people in the autism spectrum may be uniquely suited to the sciences. That bipolars show an amazing tendency toward producing art and literature. In fact, neurodiverse people may have played some key roles in developing the modern world.

Different minds create new memes, as necessary for the freshening of culture as new genetic combinations are vital to the freshening of the species. Bipolars–“restless and unquiet,” as one correspondent put it–may have helped with the spread of human culture, migrating frequently and often into new territories

Not entirely sure if I buy that but I also don’t know enough evolutionary psychology to argue with it. It’s hard to argue with the idea that diverse mental states create excellent art. It’s almost a cliché. But it’s true in a lot of respects, and Antonetta states outright that she sees the gifts as well as the challenges of mental illness and I respect that. But the examples she gives of bipolar artists is mostly a list of the damned.

The painter van Gogh was bipolar, as were Virginia Woolf, Georgia O’Keefe, Sylvia Plath, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Gioacchino Rossini and hundreds of other artists.

“Spring and Fall, to a Young Child” is one of my favorite poems and it contains the line from poetry I quote most often in my life: “It is the blight man was born for, It is Margaret you mourn for.” But would you really have wanted to have lived Hopkins’ life, with his manias that caused him to dehydrate himself to the point of illness, the deep unipolar horrors that he faced most of his short life? Would you really have wanted to live the lives of either Plath or Woolf, with the anorexia, the suicide attempts, the rages, the final desperations? It is a subjective point, to be sure, that such suffering is worth the art it creates, but who really would have wanted to be Sylvia Plath, alone, terrified, angry and willing to die, tucking towels under the door and opening windows in the childrens’ room so they wouldn’t inhale the gas? I am reluctant to grace mental illness with any sort of sanctity because while we get to enjoy the fruit borne from madness, the lives of those whose minds burned them out are often nothing any of us would want. Yes, I wish there was a cure for all mental illness and I know the best most of us can do is cope however we decide to cope, but I am uneasy as hell as seeing the bright side to any of this. “Yay, we got some poems before Plath gassed herself!” is not the way I want to look at this possible form of natural selection. That the world benefited from the sufferings of Ernest Hemingway, Anne Sexton, Abbie Hoffman and Edgar Allan Poe is, for many of us, a cold comfort when we realize we know how much misery they felt.

And this is a side note to this book but as a writer who lost my spark after years of struggle, depression and despair, I can tell you emphatically that being alive is better overall than writing my old brand of disturbing fiction. Perhaps I lacked talent and that is why I do not mourn my lost gifts, but I often fear that people who need treatment and can benefit from it won’t try because there is a party line that to be creative is to suffer and to risk pills means risking the spark to create. I have no idea if madness spawns great art – there have certainly been enough artists who were not mad – but the idea that it does sanctifies what seems like unnecessary suffering.

And as engaging as I found parts of this book, it began to slowly fall apart in subsequent chapters. Points are made over and over in different chapters, the focus of the chapters were at time fuzzy and at other times, Antonetta’s logic made no sense to me at all. For example, Antonetta follows the trial of a teenage neighbor who killed another little boy and we spend a lot of time reading about her reactions to the whole thing – the murdered child’s parents, the absence of support for the defendant and other musings that didn’t really play much into what I thought was the thesis of this book – the positive benefits of natural selection for forms of mental illness and the need to accept the neurodiverse without condemnation.

She relates to the testimony of how unkempt the defendant was, seeing parallels between his lack of self-care and her own. She feels a sense of sadness that the only person the defendant, Kyle, likely loved was his grandfather. But then she hits us with this:

What we had, with my neighbor Kyle’s tucked chin, cartoonish face: a boy who collected enough weapons to power a desert army and rare poisons, who taught himself as a teenager how to do a particular type of autopsy peculiar to the East Coast, studied Nazi killing, all with the intent to kill a child. My child as easily as anyone’s, I imagine, half a mile from his house.

What we had to explain him: ADHD; possibly poor parenting; possibly too little touch; a personality disorder that no doubt hundreds of thousands of people have; evil.

Then we have this:

…Kyle stands as a koan or theological knot unto himself, but he’s like one of those theologies that tell you that trying to understand the nature of the Trinity is like trying to carry the ocean with a small bucket, so I can’t go any farther than this; as Augustine said of evil, “Do not seek to know more than is appropriate.”

It is impossible to have had my mental health history and not read every book on the topic with intensity. So perhaps the average person may not have the incredibly visceral reaction I did to these passages. I try not to use the word evil because it is often a cop-out, an easy way to dismiss the need to understand things that are hard to comprehend. That Antonetta, who wants understanding of the lusciousness of the foreign mind, the mind that is not like others, yet approaches the issue of extreme mental illness and psychopathic fixations that led to murder with the word evil filled me with despair. The complex mind cuts both ways. If we are to accept the art and science that comes from neurodiverse minds, then we must make ourselves understand the destruction that comes from them, too. The madness that creates a body of literary work and the madness that causes one child to murder another are different sides of the same coin and you cannot spend one side without spending the other, and cheap words like evil to comprehend difficult situations do no one any good.

This book is not wholly without redemption. Though I clearly have taken exception to Antonetta’s use of the word luscious when describing chaotic minds, I always love accounts of how people with minds like mine describe what is going on with them. Some of her descriptions of her head resonate with me.

It’s a noisy, busy place in my head, at least most of the time.

Right now my mind’s in a phase of of furiously narrating in a you voice: you’d better put that back in the refrigerator, you need to try to sleep now. It’s kind of irritating, like having a mad mother on the inside of your ear. It doesn’t bother me much, any more than a cat who won’t stop meowing might. Minds, in my experience, are messy, loud places.

The type of discord in her mind is different than mine, but I am familiar with the sort of head that never stops talking to itself.

However, it’s interesting to me the sort of disconnect present in this book. Antonetta’s main theme of this book seems to be to discuss how people who are neurodiverse should be accepted as a positive force by those who find them foreign. Yet she seems shocked when a reviewer on Amazon comments that Dawn, a friend of Antonetta’s who wrote a book about her autism, seems utterly foreign. Antonetta says:

How strange to think of Dawn and me and all of our kin as aliens, as a different kind of human being, as if we’ve branched off like Neanderthals, or the hominids who lived 18,000 years ago and were nicknamed the hobbit people.

Surely Antonetta understands that neurotypical minds see people with autism, bipolar or unipolar disorder, or any kind of mental illness, to be alien. Isn’t discussing the ways that the neurodiverse differ from others one of the main themes in this book. Antonetta goes on tangents like this often, seemingly disingenuous to me. As I read over Antonetta’s tales of her youth, her journals, her reminiscences of the girl she once was, I felt odd with some of her statements in this book because it seems she was hyper aware of every terrible thing that her mind did to her, that she had plenty of language to discuss her turmoil even as a teen, she was completely aware how different she was from others around her, even from her own parents. So why the surprise that she and others like her are misunderstood and seen as the other by those with “normal” brains?

I think I lack a certain depth at times because I am rabidly unconcerned with how I became the person I am. I don’t care if I am this way because I inherited just the wrong genes, because evolution needs people like me, or if I was spoiled environmentally, and this lack of depth is why books like this annoy me more than they should. However, my distaste for investigating my own mental origins aside, this had the potential to be a very interesting book, discussing some thorny and fascinating topics. It just got too garbled in the execution. Antonetta’s presentation is all over the map, with ground already covered being covered again and again in a fragmented manner, with inconsistent conclusions, and far too much time dithering over “whither” when her fears for the future and conclusions seemed faulty to me. Her at times fey writing style was also not to my tastes. I don’t regret reading this book but I don’t think I will ever read it again. It was a lot of work to figure out what Antonetta was driving at, and I was left with a book that did not have much resonance with me when I finished it.

Perversity Think Tank by Supervert

This post originally appeared on I Read Odd Books

Book: Perversity Think Tank

Author: Supervert

Type of Book: Non-fiction, human sexuality, pornography, psychology, philosophy

Why Do I Consider This Book Odd: This tiny book’s arrangement is in itself odd, with a scholarly discussion running across the top of the pages, a more personal narration running across the bottom, and large, black squares over all the pictures. Then there’s the content…

Availability: Published by Supervert in 2010, you can get a copy here:

Comments: I have a pretty serious book crush on Supervert. Every now and then you come across an author who seems very much like he or she is on your wavelength, whose words seem like they could have come out of your own brain. Supervert is one of those authors for me. I felt a great amount of kinship reading a few of the stories in Necrophilia Variations (and yeah, when you say that, when you admit a book with this particular title spoke to you directly, you are making a certain statement about yourself and now that I am officially a harmless, middle-aged woman, I feel I am safe making any sort of admission I want). I found myself nodding a lot when reading Perversity Think Tank as the book tried to answer the question of “What is Perversity?”

If I didn’t know this before reading the book, I now understand that defining perversity can be very much akin to holding mercury but Supervert manages to nail down some interesting perspectives on the topic. Mostly, I walked away knowing what perversity isn’t, while marveling that there is another human being on the planet who had thought about the complete narcissism that is involved in reproductive incest, which I will discuss in a moment.

Supervert has a unique insight into perversion. He ran the site PervScan, wherein he scoured news for anything with a hint of sexual deviance to it. While this book was inspired by the musings that the PervScan articles inspired, this is not a compilation of the site’s “greatest hits” though a couple of cases are referenced in the book. Rather, the book uses a couple of cases to ponder what comprises perversion and what does not. Interestingly, compiling all those stories of strange acts showed Supervert that most of the acts he cataloged were not true perversion.

Many of the acts I covered on PervScan – like the three middle-aged brothers who sexually assaulted their bedridden mother while she lay suffering amid lice, roaches, and fecal matter – struck me less as perverse than as ignorant, heedless, cruel. There were days when I thought my compendium of deviant doings was nothing more than a catalogue of errors in judgement and lapses in common sense.

This was an incredibly important point to me because despite my own self-admitted sympathy for the devil as well as an abiding interest in the bizarre and perverted, even I find myself defining any deviation from the norm, up to and including the worst sexual crimes, as perversion when really what was at work was psychopathy or a sub-normal intellect.

Moreover, as Supervert read more and more examples of sexual oddity, that which had seemed somewhat perverted before now seemed somewhat tame.

After you’ve read about a guy who wants to eat his own penis, you feel like you’ve pretty much heard it all. How could mere exhibitionism seem perverted in comparison to a man who wants to fry his genitalia in a pan?

I know, this isn’t the most profound of statements, but it struck me that I don’t know another single person in real life who speculates on such things, who has, in fact, heard it all to the point that little shocks them and the outre seems positively normal and comforting. I often feel as if my interest in perversion is a perversion in and of itself. I wish I knew more people who know the ins and outs of the Armin Meiwes case or all the details about Sharon Lopatka because it would make me happy to know other suburbanites with gray hair and festive glasses and a love of kittens wouldn’t throw me out of their houses if they knew what goes into and on in my head.

Supervert discusses all the various meanings of perversion. He discusses one of the first philosophical interpretations of perversion, an easy conclusion that many have reached before – that sexual perversion is any act that thwarts reproduction. Easy enough but it means that a married couple who have sex after the wife has experienced menopause are therefore perverts and so that really doesn’t fit. Additionally, Supervert brings up Sade, who wrote in The 120 Days of Sodom about a libertine who wanted to masturbate and ejaculate on the crowning head of an infant as it was born. This perversion can only happen because of human reproduction so really, in a sense, this shows the complete creativity involved in true perversion and how useless most definitions of perversion can be. Freud defined perversity as any sex act that diverted the focus of sex from the sex organs. Sort of limiting and pretty much results in everyone who has ever done anything sexual with their hands or mouths in the bedroom in being labeled a pervert and the more the merrier, right? But sweeping generalizations like these do no one any good in understanding the true nature of perversion.

The book brings up all the usual suspects like Sade but then it also discusses those whose opinions on sex are suspect at best and therefore were hilarious to me. The sad, misogynistic, sexually inept Schopenhauer makes an appearance, to my delight. Evidently, he had a foot in a pre-Freud camp that indicated that perversion was anything not involving sex organs because it ensured that those who had bad genes that made them perverts could not reproduce and pass on their defects. Which makes my lack of children somewhat interesting but then again, as Supervert reminds us, Sade had three children. Oh lord, I hate Schopenhauer. His ideas of failsex can only inspire derision in me, his very name makes me groan, and mileage, of course, always varies, but I rather enjoyed the times in this book when I felt provoked.

It was during the discussion on incest that my book crush on Supervert was confirmed. The first part was obvious, but nothing that I had ever really considered. Supervert discusses the perversion in incest and comes to an interesting conclusion. The inbred yokel who has sex with his daughter is likely not doing it in order to violate the taboo of inter-familial sex. Rather, he is doing it because she is likely the only available girl. It is an act of availability that while repellent, is not all that perverse. It is a far different thing for a father to desire his daughter because she is his daughter, or a mother to desire her son because he is her son. A key part of perversion, as far as Supervert is concerned, is consideration for the act itself and not just the easy, sloppy depravity that makes a person simply have sex with whomever or whatever is closest.

But here’s the thing that surprised me anyone else had considered (and secretly thrilled me because when one entertains dark and perverted thoughts, one never thinks anyone else would even in a million years think the same thing): the narcissism present in deliberate incest.

A libertine doesn’t molest his daughter because she just happens to be there. A libertine molests his daughter because he consciously wants to create a being who is both his child and his grandchild – and still a future sex object itself. Then he molests that daughter/granddaughter hybrid to obtain another new being who is child, grandchild, great grandchild – and still sex object.

Once you get to a certain point in this process, the end result is an appalling creation that is more or less masturbation by proxy.

The incestuous libertine approaches ever closer to a reproductive act whose result is a child 100% himself, and yet that ultimate point is always deferred by increasingly small percentages. The libertine can never quite dispense with the shred of genetic material that belongs to the maternal line, and yet the fact remains that, by fucking the offspring of his own offspring, he is inevitably fucking more and more of himself.

It is this awareness of the act and the results that is quite important when considering perversion:

And that, as Sade recognized, is one of the most striking characteristics of perversity: it is deliberate, self-conscious, pellucid. Its hallmark is… its intentionality… The libertine is able to reflect on his unwholesome activities. Self-awareness makes his pleasures all the greater.

Though Supervert discusses much, much more than these conclusions in the book, I think this is quite important and possibly the greatest revelation in this book for me. Too often people with dire sexual compulsions are labeled perverts, people with little control over their acts or those governed by a need that is innate and defies any sort of consciousness. Perversion, as a philosophical approach to depravity, requires far more than a compulsive need or a thoughtless action.

The only part of this book that I found the least bit disagreeable was Supervert’s passage about how rape could possibly be a part of the evolutionary process.

Evolutionary biologists have pointed out that natural selection provides an obvious impetus for it, insofar as rape improves the rapist’s chances for reproductive success. That my friend was raped in Central Park was symbolic: in the greatest swath of grass and trees in New York, she was subject to the Darwinism of her attackers.

Back when I first heard this particular line of thinking many years ago in an anthropology class in college, I was skeptical. Even 100,000 years ago, didn’t women understand the causality between sex and pregnancy even if they did not understand the exact mechanism? Raped women often don’t look kindly on the offspring of rape. If they couldn’t abort, those children were likely abandoned or exposed, or were raised less kindly. The men in societies where their spouses were subject to rape would also have reacted poorly. The rapists were likely subject to physical violence that made them rethink any impulse for rape, if they survived the violence. Or they would get kicked out of the tribe they lived in and would have had a far harder time at surviving at all. If there was ever a genetic code for rape to ensure one’s genetic material lived on, it likely got killed off when the offspring of such unions were subject to abortion, abandonment or resentful care and the men themselves violently neutralized before they could spread very much seed at all. Even if women only became aware of how pregnancy happened during recorded history, I would think that societal reactions to rape would still be enough to wipe out any gene that causes rape within a dozen or so generations. Or that was my knee jerk reaction. It seems there are some who know quite a bit of evolutionary psychology who agree. But regardless of which side is correct, is interesting to me, analyzing what about our sexual natures, dark and not-so-dark, can be seen as innate or learned, or just the result of a bad brain.

Supervert’s book is full of enlightened explanations of the philosophy and reasoning behind some sex acts even I can look at and call bizarre, or perverted, and at times, the best parts of the book were his discourses on the blacked-out images. These images were varied and covered a lot of ground. Like men who like to ejaculate into a woman’s eye. Like a pornographer who wanted to make a skin flick out of a woman giving birth. Like an almost touching picture of a couple on a bed, the man smoking, the woman lying on her side, staring at the man. Like the solipsistic nature of POV porn. Like his reaction to a simple painting and how this painting shows clearly how alone the pervert is in his or her own mind. Like a piece of art that provokes thoughts as to whether or not autoerotic asphyxiation is a perveme (he discusses pervemes in the book – perversion memes). Like a bestiality film clip that proved there is indeed a noise that can inspire disgust. Yeah, I think I most enjoyed Supervert’s reactions to the art he deliberately blocks out of the book.

This book isn’t for everyone but if you are a fellow traveler on certain roads, you will want to get this book. If you do read it or have already read it, I’d love to know how you read it. I read the “top half” from beginning to end, then read the “bottom half.” I paused during the bottom half to read the descriptions that accompanied the blacked-out pictures. I read the book in this manner twice, then looked up the pictures (or as many as were available online) and reread the descriptions. For a small, straightforward book, it requires a lot of attention. While definitely salacious enough to inspire prurient thoughts in those who are simply in this for the titillation, the book is not technically pornography, because the goal is to inspire interaction and thought rather than sexual arousal. In fact, the way the book is set up demands interaction and close attention and is a book I will probably reread again soon. And though I am unsure if the book available on Amazon has the same brown dust jacket as the copy I have, even without it this book is quite lovely. Books as small works of art are rare these days.

(And in the name of all that is sane, of course I don’t advocate incest, pedophilia, bestiality or any non-consensual sex act. It horrifies me that in the course of merely reviewing a philosophical discussion of perversity I have to make this point clear, but perverse thoughts do not equal advocacy nor do they indicate an unsound mind. Any comment along the line of OMG GROCE or a juvenile assertion that exploring these issues is a de facto advocacy of harmful acts will not get deleted because I will be forced to mock such comments because I am weary, oh lord am I weary. )

Stuff by Randy O. Frost and Gail Steketee

This post originally appeared on I Read Everything

Book: Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things

Authors: Randy O. Frost and Gail Steketee

Type of Book: Psychology

Why Did I Read This Book: I admit it. I watch Hoarders. I also read the TWoP thread about the show. When this book came out, people in the thread mentioned the book. Later, a woman whose blog I read also recommended the book.

Availability: Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (boo, hiss) in 2010, you can get a copy here:

Comments: I am sickly fascinated by hoarding. I have more cats than the average person would think is normal and let us not even discuss my book collection, but at the end of it all, I am pretty finicky. I have a boat load of books but little other items of decoration. And I own two Dyson vacuum cleaners because I just can’t abide cat hair everywhere. Sometimes I think I find hoarding fascinating because it helps me feel better about the areas of my life that are a bit messy, but I also must admit that the whole train-wreck element of some of the homes tickles the tabloid part of my brain.

And yet even though I find hoarding of infinite intellectual and visceral interest, this book was bland for me. I think that there are some issues for me that I don’t really want to understand. Serial killers, for instance. Yeah, yeah, yeah, it’s interesting to know how people become serial killers through abuse and brain injury and such, but I mostly want to know how many bodies were recovered from the basement. It’s not a good personality trait but we all have our failings in life. I suspect the same thing is at work with hoarding. I just want to know how many tons of garbage were loaded onto dump trucks. I also know how intractable the mental condition behind hoarding can be. In a way, understanding hoarding and how it relates to OCD is almost useless because in the end, it is so hard to treat.

Still, parts of this book held some interest. Of most interest to me was the chapter about Pamela, who fell victim to a guru-like psychiatrist who manipulated her patients into caring for abandoned cats. She eventually ended up in a 16-room house with hundreds of cats, none of which were ever desexed because the doctor felt it unnatural, and the group of believers would go so far as to “rescue” animals who would otherwise have been spayed or neutered. Before long the situation was completely out of control, yet it continued on for years. Pamela ended up in the doctor’s home, caring for cats 21 hours a day. She finally fled when she was in her early 50s, ending up homeless for a while. But even after she clawed her way out, so to speak, she still fought the urge to collect cats. Most hoarders of animals describe animals as possessing a “pure” love, an unconditional love that was denied them in chaotic, abusive childhoods.

It was illuminating to understand some of the thinking or cognitive issues behind hoarding. One man saw limitless potential in every item he hoarded. A bucket with too many holes to hold water could hold something else. A piece of an ancient set of Venetian blinds needed to be kept on the off chance that he one day found someone who might need that slat.

One woman’s example explained the organization issues that some hoarders face. She saw things in terms of the space they occupied, instead of where they should go. Irene kept things in piles because in her mind, if she put them away, she would not remember them. A newspaper clipping, a phone number, her electricity bill – they all went into the same pile on the floor and she blamed a faulty memory when she was unable to find what she needed. She never seemed to understand that no memory was good enough to keep track of things in piles. She didn’t use drawers for the same reason – how could she know what was in the drawers if she put clothes away? Best to keep them out where she could see them. Irene also had issues with decision making, as she often could not assign just one meaning to an item. How could she put things away when some items had more than one meaning or emotional definition. A sweater could be as potent a reminder of a specific memory as a photograph or a diary entry, and therefore the sweater was not just clothing, but a mental place holder for certain events.

This book covers a lot of ground, discussing some hoarders who live in what seems to us like filth yet fear contamination when people touch their things. People who use items and animals to replace people. The perfectionism that makes positive action impossible. The desire to make sure nothing is ever wasted (the woman who saved her maxi-pads thinking she would one day wash them and reuse them was horrifying). The ability to see unspeakable beauty in bottle caps and piles of garbage.

But overall, I think the reason this book didn’t hit me well is because I left it feeling frustrated. Reading Frost’s accounts of dealing with hoarders was hellish. I felt like whacking someone on the head as I read his struggles to get just one cognitively impaired person to throw out one slip of paper with a phone number on it, only to have the patient go and retrieve the piece of paper from the trash. The successes were few and hard-won and I think I am callous enough that I crave the quick, visual fix that the television presentations of this condition offer. Yeah, those house-emptying examples don’t really solve much, but then again, aside from the examples of people intervening with children who suffer from hoarding tendencies, the psychological approach doesn’t work much either.

But my need for a quick clean-up, a definitive though likely temporary cure, is hardly the fault of the authors. I suspect people who like reading books that have case studies of patients with certain conditions, those who find hoarding interesting, or those who are dealing with hoarding will appreciate the looks this book gives into how it is that people end up in a home packed with garbage, unable to function, yet unable to change without lots of psychology and the threat of a city-operated backhoe.

A Hell of Mercy by Tim Farrington

This post originally appeared on I Read Everything

Books: A Hell of Mercy: A Meditation on Depression and the Dark Night of the Soul

Author: Tim Farrington

Type of Book: Memoir, psychology, mental health, spiritual

Why Did I Read This Book: Not long ago, I reached a place of acceptance wherein I will no longer battle my darkness. It’s a choice that is so intensely personal and specific that no one who suffers from depression should look to my decision as any sort of guidance or advocacy. But because I have decided to simply be a person who is isolated, weird and dark rather than fight it with therapy or medication any longer, I find other people’s mental health voyages fascinating.

Availability: Published by Harper Collins in 2009, you can get a copy here:

Comments: This was an erudite, elegant book and I am glad I read it. As I read it, I found myself questioning decisions I have made about my own brain chemistry, and after reevaluation, I decided my impulse to simply leave my brain alone and let it be, treatable illness though I may have, was the correct decision. Reading Farrington’s journey, his spiritual outlook on life and the chemicals in his brain, served for me, a decidedly non-spiritual person, as a fresh and very nearly inspiring look into how it is all people with depressive tendencies can interpret their disease and their lives without recrimination or guilt. Farrington recounted his life with phrases that all but hit me in the head with meaning, and I had “aha!” moments constantly in this book. There is very little in common between Farrington in me aside from wonky chemical reactions that affect our minds, so the ability of his words to affect me and touch me seem almost miraculous.

So this is an intensely personal reaction to a book, less a review than a discussion of how the book affected me. It would help to bear that in mind as you read, because I really did find myself overwhelmed at times at how eloquently Farrington put into sharp focus all the words I have bouncing in my skull but have been unable to express. This is one of those books I read and think, “I could have written this,” but that is untrue. I could not have written this. I’m not enlightened enough yet and my heart will never be this spiritual. Nevertheless, it was the right book for me to read at the right time.

Farrington conveyed very well not only how it is that we can never truly see mental illness coming, but that being smart enough even to have known it was coming for us would not have been enough and perhaps that is a good thing.

My cluelessness, I see in retrospect, conferred a certain advantage on me. If we were smart, we might never become wise.

And god help me, how many times did I justify myself, sanctify the worst of my tirades as if having brain chemistry problems excused it.

…I came to see depression as my shadow on the path; like the “black dog” of Churchill’s recurrent blues, it was an inescapable presence. My lows could be debilitating, but they also seemed intimately related to my creativity itself and so were slightly glamorous, like Hemingway’s alcoholism and Dostoyevsky’s epilepsy. But my art at this time was self-indulgent stuff at best, and I invoked it much too readily to justify failures of character.

I can’t even begin to explain how many times I have excused my poor behavior because I have an “artistic” temperament and how many times my husband clung to that mental raft every time my rages sent him out to sea. This, more than any other, is the area wherein I feel guilt about being a depressive, and it helps that Farrington explained my own foibles to me so well. Interestingly, about the time I began to reject such thinking is the time I stopped being able to write fiction. I lack the will to investigate this cause-effect very carefully but it does make it very hard to understand the link between what I perceive about myself and who I truly am. Surely my fiction cannot have just dried up because I rejected brain chemistry as a reason to continue acting poorly but you never know. All I know is that when I no longer saw magic in being as wretched as Baudelaire, my words dried up and I started writing about books instead of trying to write books.

But then again, what I had to write back then may not have been worth much. My first novel was a disaster, and Farrington seems to have had similar problems, because the seduction of being mad does not always imply genius, no matter what we try to tell ourselves.

…I ended up writing an incredibly pretentious novel, a sort of first-person anti-Gospel: “My name is Jesus. I am an old man now,” it began. Yikes.

The book was bad, but it was good in the sense of being better than suicide, and after a while the voices faded to a dim roar and I began to write merely puerile bad novels in a more standard fashion…

His description of a time in which he submerged himself into the darkness, searching for answers, will ring utterly true to those who have observed my own depressive antics.

I was living on cornflakes and macaroni and cheese, and I was pretty whacked-out. I didn’t talk to anyone for months and slept on my own eccentric schedule – approximately a twenty-five-hour day, cycling gradually through all manner of weird wake-up times. I had a half-serious theory that I was actually from another planet that had a longer day and that therefore my diurnal clock was unfitted to the Earth’s twenty-four-hour rotation..

Medications never blunted my creativity like they did with Farrington, probably because I am largely unsuited to psycho-pharmacology. That which calms most minds will leave me hearing voices. If it makes a person drowsy, I will be climbing the walls. But his experience is a common one, I think.

Still, one cannot stray far from what passes for normal consciousness in our culture without encountering the guardian deities of medication. At that point in the late seventies, lithium was the state-of-the-art antidepressant, and the perverse simplicity of the notion that a minuscule failure of electrolytic salt lay at the root of my intricate suffering was almost dizzying. I tried it briefly and found what every artist fears from psychiatry to be true: the drug interfered with my writing. I felt blunted and dim on lithium, displaced about three feet from the center of myself, a gray bystander to my essential life.

And have I ever felt that disembodied feeling, a numbness that permits observation but no immersion. A chemical meant to save your life but leaves you separated from all that makes life worth living. My chemical alienation lay mainly in benzos and pams, but I sense the feelings are often similar – not a new self but a novel, wooden ability not to care about the old self.

But much of what Farrington has to say does apply to those with a creative spirit.

Some people go back to school at that point, get their MFA, and eventually teach; some go into business and promise themselves they will write someday when they are financially secure. But I felt my own bridges back to such reassuring normality had burned long since, and, being the melodramatic mystical sort that I am, I went into a monastery instead.

This passage meant a lot to me, grad school dropout that I am. And I am definitely a person for whom bridges to normality have been burned. Some depressives sleep all day. My early depression manifested itself in insomnia that I would dose myself endlessly with pills and booze to try to counteract. My life became centered on a lack of sleep and the side-effects that endlessly chasing sleep causes. This sort of thing does not lend itself well to a 9-5 life and when you fail at job, after job, after job, eventually you just know better than to try any more. I luckily have a partner who takes up the financial slack and I make our domestic lives as easy as I can, a life that makes my sleep issues less of an issue, so to speak. I know there are lots of others out there like me, but they have kids a and firm financial obligations and they cope somehow, but in my case, not even the pressure of needing money overcame the haze of ten Tylenol PMs washed down with some gin. That’s a method of suicide to most people but for me it was just self-medication burning my bridges to reassuring normality. And sadly, there are no convents for atheist girls like me.

It’s not actually such a stretch to consider depression as an involuntary form of postmodern mortification, a salutary humiliation akin to a hair shirt… What if some degree of pained and penitential consciousness, of realized inadequacy in the light of the sacred, is in fact necessary to the full human life? Our depressions, which we labor so to cure before they disrupt our self-enclosed routines, may be nefarious blessings, gestures by our stymied souls toward the conscious embrace of helplessness and suffering.

This, for me, is a key passage, because I know full well to the bottom of my blackened heart, hermit that this disease has made me, that if I do have a soul, depression has softened it. Depression has, beyond a doubt, made me a kinder person. I see a man who probably drinks, asking for money and I give it because I know. I know that but for two strikes of luck in my life – my husband and my capacity to detox and make it stick – I could be standing there because addiction and depression hold each others hands. They switch back and forth, one leading to the other. It is a nefarious blessing, to know that you really are able to say, “There but for the grace of god go I,” and mean it, without any bitterness or arrogance towards those for whom the battle has led them down a far more bridge-burning road.

There are things you simply cannot prepare for. This is not something anyone really wants to hear. We spend our lives preparing; we stake our pride on mastering the troublesome aspects of our world. We study, we practice, we polish and adjust; even our earnest efforts to “go with the flow” and humbly surrender to the processes of a life force larger than ourselves are invariably suffused with a hidden agenda. If we are good, bad things will not happen; if we are good enough, our suffering will end.

When I was in high school, I knew depression intimately but no one really called it that back then. I knew it even if I didn’t have a name for it, the sinking sense that if I did not fight and flail I would sink down into the mud and no one would ever be able to save me. I joined every extracurricular activity I could. I was an honors student. I had a part-time job. I matched my shoes to my outfits and ironed my underwear. I internalized good as “middle class and going places” and I worked so hard to be good. To look good in my own way. To disavow the blackness around my lungs where I sensed my soul should be but wasn’t. I burned myself out being good, and it began to show in college. It really began to show in my 30s. There is no good enough for depression. There is no closet large enough, no shoes that gleam enough, no resume that wows enough. There is no way to prepare. Even as I gave up and went with the flow, the tiny goodnesses I managed to achieve – saving a cat or two, helping a neighbor’s child – were not enough to hold the badness at bay. This, I think, is the hardest lesson depression taught me: there is no way to prepare well enough to prevent the dark days from coming.

My life had always been peppered with black days, days in which taking a shower seemed far beyond my means, days in which I just hunkered down like a wounded beast and endured; I’d had black weeks and even the occasional black month. During a particularly trying time in the early nineties, I’d spent an entire summer staring at the blank cursor on my computer screen, as if at a receding satellite; unable to write a word.

My equivalent of this is spending all day long in bed reading Encyclopedia Dramatica. This is more or less how I spent the summer of 2009. And that is a measuring stick to me. When showering begins to seem like it is too much, too hard and too pointless, I know the depression is wrapping its hands around my neck.

“It is one of the paradoxes of transformation that the closer we get to new possibility, the worse things seem to seem,” Richard Moss writes in The Black Butterfly. In another of the paradoxes of transformation, however, I found no comfort at all in this notion. I was haunting the bookstores, looking desperately for some help, but the spiritual books all seemed like chatter now. The universe had simplified itself into a desert of meaningless suffering, and the wisest words were just marks on the bleached expanse. Joy, compassion, peace and the divine: yadda-yadda-yadda.

I think this sort of depressive nihilism is why I read so precisely the details of the saints, the ones who suffered and starved and found enlightenment through pain because I still am a nihilist myself. I cannot meditate. I know no god. This is not entirely depression’s fault. I never believed in the fantastic, the mystical. Santa Claus was always a man in a beard to me though I put on a good act as a child. I am not entirely sure I have a soul, though I know my dead cat did, and that my dead grandparents did. If nothing else, depression has separated me from any comfort or sense of salvation. But being a person shaped by depression, this bothers me a lot less than it probably should.

Nothing will screw you up more than a team of professionals determined to help you.

Except, perhaps, believing that therapy and medicine can offer us no help at all. The fact that you’re depressed doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re not going through a dark night, but it is just as true, and as crucial to know, that seeking therapy, or taking medication for a biochemical affliction, doesn’t necessarily mean you have subverted your spiritual process or numbed your reality sense with muffling anesthetics.

I sometimes wonder if I will ever return to psychotropics for cures. I let myself have a tiny dose of a relatively inoffensive substance (well, it is inoffensive to me) daily to keep the worst of the anxiety that the darkness causes me tamped down. But it is good to know that I am not the only person left who embraces an approach wherein we manage to keep ourselves whole however we can. Too many shun medications as weak and too many embrace them as all-encompassing panaceas. I hit a point wherein I believed continuing to seek medical answers to my brain problems would probably kill me as I am not that well suited to the trials and physical misery that comes from getting the biochemical solutions right. But even at the worst of it, I think my disappointment stemmed from knowing so many people find the right drug and that after years of experimenting with my brain, it was time to stop. There would be no cure, at least not then or now.

“At the first-order of experiential description,” Denys Turner notes in The Darkness of God, “John of the Cross’s accounts of the sufferings of the ‘dark nights of the soul’ are uncannily similar to what a person will give from the inside of depression.”

As alienated as I am from any spiritual leanings, I still hope that this darkness is but a journey toward salvation but at the same time, I don’t think it is. It has gone on too long, though St. Paul’s dark night of the soul lasted 45 years. Rather, I think that instead of preparing to stave it off, I simply know that it comes and that I need to understand it will come and go when it wants. I don’t think, as much as narratives like this stoke my heart, that this suffering of mine will lead me to god. And this lack of faith is why I read books like this.

It sounds bizarre, but I think the key point in the dark night is basically everything but this death being hell. I was still, silent, perfectly accepting at last, inwardly, only because it hurt so much to move. It didn’t feel good or holy or anything much, but it didn’t hurt. It was not peace, in any positive sense, at least not for a very long time, but it was quiet and painless, and for me at that point, after years of every spiritual effort causing only pain, frustration, dryness and inner noise, that quiet–not Quiet, just quiet–would do just fine.

And that is where I am now. In a place of quiet. I don’t go out of the house much. People set my teeth on edge, which is not a good thing since I have given myself a TMJ disorder grinding my teeth at night. I never talk much, even on the phone, and recently discovered I had gone so long between uses on my pay-as-you-go phone that I lost my number due to inactivity. I am shut off from the world and for the first time in a long while I don’t mind. This quiet for me is not Quiet, but it is peace and I will take what I can get.

It’s been a while since a book spoke to me this profoundly, wherein I could not analyze it in terms of information or literary quality but could only sit and read with awe and understanding. This is an excellent book, through and through.

Prozac Diary by Lauren Slater

This post originally appeared on I Read Everything

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.)

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time

This post originally appeared on I Read Everything

Book: The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time

Mark Haddon

Type of work:

Why Did I Read This Book:
I worked briefly at a used bookstore (waves to all my awesome coworkers at the Half-Price Books in Round Rock, if any of them ever find this review site) and a woman told me she had read it for her book club and wanted a copy for her daughter because she liked it so much. Her daughter worked with special needs children and despite the number of times I had seen copies of the book in new stores, I had no idea the book revolved around a “special needs” kid. On the basis of that woman’s like of the book and tantalizing premise of an autistic teenager writing a book, I decided to give it a try.

Published in 2003 by Vintage Books, this book is still widely available. You can get a copy here:

Comments: I do my best not to be an armchair psychiatrist because invariably such endeavors show my utter ignorance in the realm of psychiatry and the workings of the human brain, but I wonder what my extreme love of the spare style used to write this book says about me. The trope of the book is that Christopher Boone, a 15-year-old autistic savant, discovered a neighbor’s dead dog, stabbed to death with a pitchfork, and decided to write a book about his attempts to solve the dog’s murder. As he writes his book, Christopher uncovers a shocking family secret and is forced to crawl outside the extreme limits his autism place upon him. Of course, I won’t spoil the ending but the plot, while at times a little obvious, is overshadowed by the experience of spending time in Christopher’s head, a time that is nerve-wracking, saddening, frustrating and amazing.

Abducted: How People Come to Believe They Were Kidnapped by Aliens by Susan A. Clancy

This post originally appeared on I Read Odd Books

Book: Abducted: How People Come to Believe They Were Kidnapped by Aliens

Susan A Clancy

Why I Consider This Book Odd: I heard a review of this book on some NPR morning program, possibly Bryant Park though I can no longer recall, and the burning need to read this book got ignited. Honestly! A Harvard Ph.D. psychology candidate angered people with her findings in memory recovery in sexual abuse and for her next project branched out to study people abducted by aliens. Gah! I love, love, love it when science gets involved in the odd. But yeah, the whole premise – researching people who have tales of abduction and then explaining how these beliefs came to be – was odd. The book proved more fascinating than odd, but it’s odd enough, believe me.

Type of work: Non-fiction, psychological study

Availability: Published in 2005 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College, it is still in print. You can order a copy here:

Comments: This book was a hoot! I am a sucker for anything wherein I get to read people’s profiles (especially psychological profiles of less than normal people) and this book did not disappoint. But ultimately, this is not a book to groove on the oddness, because Clancy’s explanations of how people really do come to believe they were kidnapped by aliens seem sound to a layperson like me and make for fascinating and not always odd reading. But never fear! The book is peppered with enough oddness to make it worth a read from those who can only stomach the oddest of the odd.

Clancy, whose studies into the repressed memories of sexual abuse survivors, led her into a situation where she was damned if she did and damned if she didn’t. If she revealed her findings that sexual abuse survivors were susceptible to idea implantation, she potentially diminished the real, horrific impact of abuse in the survivor community. In order to show the sound methodology of her study, she would end up harming people, as well as causing harm in communities where all too many people are not believed. It was a political and social minefield, one that eventually caused her to be condemned by those in her very field.

The trouble she experienced in sexual abuse recovered memories caused her to move on to a different study – how is it exactly people think they were snatched up by space aliens. Her research ultimately will not show a reader of psychology books anything new, as abductees are subject to the same influences that anyone who develops odd ideas experiences: Media, night terrors, a willingness to read Whitley Strieber, group delusion and reinforcement, a personal sense of isolation and a need to belong somewhere and an insistence that the commonality of the experiences proves all play a part in making people think they were abducted by aliens. Actually, Clancy utterly disproves that last argument – abductions must be true because all our experiences are the same – by showing that they are in fact, not the same, varying with vastly different details (in Chapter 4).

This is a book that could have descended into farce and while Clancy has no aversion to humor and writes in an at times sardonic manner, she respectfully shows the rich diversity of those with abduction stories. They cut across age, economic class and sex, never falling into stereotypes of drunk rednecks wondering what happened during that lost period after the case of beer disappeared and coming up with ET and a probe, or kooky new-agers who long for abduction like a lost lover. Even though elements of those stereotypes make up some who spoke of their experiences for this book, the abductees defy stereotype and Clancy respects the dignity of all her subjects, even the ones whose tales are violent and unsettling, even those who evidently stank up her car with their body odor.

Elements of this book were hilarious, often unintentionally so. I still giggle like a schoolgirl at the description one man gave of his abductor, a naked, gorgeous alien with cherry red public hair. Cherry. Red. Pubic. Hair. Goodness. Some of the stories have insane logic in them that makes sense sort of until you actually think about them. Like the woman who saw three lovely women in flowing dresses and decided that after seeing them she needed to maintain a macrobiotic diet. These women were omens. What flowing dresses on pretty women have to do with a macrobiotic diet is irrelevant. Just go with it. This is one of the milder examples of insane logic in the book, logic that makes sense in a way until you choke it down with rational thought. Some are less cute, like the man who believes his children half alien, the product between him and a non-human female, children he cannot see but knows are there. How his wife feels about step-kids in the ether is not known. It’s a short leap from silly logic to bad ideas that are quite malignant for relationships and sound functioning.

Overall, this is an interesting read, but for anyone who has gone through a dark patch in his or her life – failed relationships, death of loved ones, loss of job, loss of health – some of the experiences these abductees endure are similar to the ones that cause many of us to drink, take Xanax, or find the Lord. Belief in UFO abduction numbs the pain or it creates a sense of belonging to something inexplicable but mystical and bigger than you. It was very easy, once Clancy laid it all out, how every one of her subjects made it from point A to point B.

This was a quick, easy read and I recommend it. And do I believe in alien abduction? Like my belief in the paranormal – sort of, but not really. I’m still looking for rational reasons for the weirdnesses that have gone down in my own life. I love the odd, and live it at times, but my higher brain makes it hard for me to buy into ghosts and alien abduction. As always, your mileage may, and probably will, vary. Regardless, this was a fun book that wallowed in the odd and I quite enjoyed it.