Acclaimed British neurologist Sacks (Neurology and Psychiatry/Columbia Univ.; The Mind’s Eye, 2010, etc.) delves into the many different sorts of hallucinations that can be generated by the human mind.
The author assembles a wide range of case studies in hallucinations—seeing, hearing or otherwise perceiving things that aren’t there—and the varying brain quirks and disorders that cause them in patients who are otherwise mentally healthy. In each case, he presents a fascinating condition and then expounds on the neurological causes at work, drawing from his own work as a neurologist, as well as other case studies, letters from patients and even historical records and literature. For example, he tells the story of an elderly blind woman who “saw” strange people and animals in her room, caused by Charles Bonnet Syndrome, a condition in with the parts of the brain responsible for vision draw on memories instead of visual perceptions. In another chapter, Sacks recalls his own experimentation with drugs, describing his auditory hallucinations. He believed he heard his neighbors drop by for breakfast, and he cooked for them, “put their ham and eggs on a tray, walked into the living room—and found it completely empty.” He also tells of hallucinations in people who have undergone prolonged sensory deprivation and in those who suffer from Parkinson’s disease, migraines, epilepsy and narcolepsy, among other conditions. Although this collection of disorders feels somewhat formulaic, it’s a formula that has served Sacks well in several previous books (especially his 1985 bestseller The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat), and it’s still effective—largely because Sacks never turns exploitative, instead sketching out each illness with compassion and thoughtful prose.
A riveting look inside the human brain and its quirks.
LaPlante’s literary novel explores uncharted territory, imagining herself into a mind, one slipping, fading, spinning away from her protagonist, a woman who may have murdered her best friend.
Dr. Jennifer White lives in the dark, shadowy forest of forgetfulness. She is 64, a flinty intellectual, competent and career-focused, but she has been forced to retire from orthopedic surgery by the onset of dementia. Her husband is dead. Her children—precociously intelligent and possibly bipolar Fiona, a professor, and Mark, an attorney like his late father, but only an imitation of that charismatic and competent man—are left to engineer her care. The novel opens with White at home, cared for by Magdalena, a paid companion. Fiona has control of her mother's finances, a source of conflict with Mark, troubled by money problems and the hint of addiction. White’s own strobe flashes of lucidity reveal the family’s history. White’s closest friend, Amanda, was found dead a few days previously, a thing she sometimes understands. Four fingers from one of Amanda's hand had been surgically amputated. Amanda, her husband Peter and Jennifer and James were close friends, but Amanda possessed an arrogant streak, a hyper-moralistic and judgmental attitude, aggravated by a willingness to use secrets to manipulate. Amanda was also childless and jealous, especially of Fiona’s affections. LaPlante tells the story poignantly, gracefully and artistically. Jennifer White, as a physician, as a wife, as a mother, leaps from the pages as a powerful character, one who drifts away from all that is precious to her—her profession, her mental acuity—with acceptance, anger and intermittent tragic self-knowledge. LaPlante writes in scenes without chapter breaks. White’s thoughts and speech are presented in plain text and those of the people she encounters in italics. Despite the near stream-of-consciousness, Faulknerian Sound and Fury presentation, the narrative is easily followed to the resolution of the mystery and White’s ultimate melancholy and inevitable end.
A New Hampshire family is transformed by mental illness in Noel’s first novel.
Angie Voorster is a straight-A student and a star athlete; at 17, she can take her pick of Ivy League schools. After a manic outburst at a swim meet, though, her future takes on a different trajectory. Angie’s mental illness doesn’t destroy her family, but it puts excessive pressure on it. Noel is very good with the everyday and particularly sensitive to the material world. The semi-functional appliances in the Voorster home—the CD player that needs to be propped up on one side with magazines, the refrigerator with the useless thermostat—speak eloquently of the family’s semi-functional state. Phenomena as quotidian as a corrugated cardboard box or the smell of cold, wet earth become powerful conduits for emotion and memory. These moments give the narrative texture, and they allow the author to reveal her characters’ inner lives and histories at a measured pace. Just as the Voorsters adapt themselves to the strange, new Angie, the universe of the everyday also shifts to accommodate her illness. As Angie moves through hospitals and outpatient centers, the author depicts places where madness is contained with rules and bureaucracy. Noel’s representation of mental illness is sympathetic, but never romantic. The sicker Angie becomes, the smaller and more exhausting her world seems, her disease circumscribing her relatives’ lives. Noel’s handling of mental illness is compassionate and clear-eyed, but her tale is about more than Angie’s disorder. It explores the mystery of family and its inexplicable, irresistible resilience in the face of affliction—whether mental illness, addiction, a disease of the body or some other pathology too subtle and rare to have a name.
Intimate, compelling memoir exploring the boundaries of the author’s severe anxiety.
Raised in a neurotic family consisting of two anxious parents and a brother suffering from hypochondria, Smith’s (Muses, Madmen, and Prophets: Rethinking the History, Science, and Meaning of Auditory Hallucination, 2007) anxiety began in childhood. By his mid-20s, he had suffered multiple serious anxiety attacks. On the surface, Smith’s life seemed happy. He recently graduated from college with honors, had a great job, loyal friends, a nice place to live and a wonderful girlfriend. “Yet every day was torture,” he writes. “I slept fitfully, with recurring nightmares—tsunamis, feral animals, the violent deaths of loved ones. I have intestinal cramps and nausea and headaches. A sense of impending catastrophe colored every waking moment.” Combining a droll tone and a sharp eye for detail, Smith chronicles his consuming physical and mental symptoms. He unrelentingly gnawed his nails until they became a bloody mess. Sweat, “the great unspoken foe of the chronically anxious,” receives its own chapter. During a temporary job, the author squashed wads of toilet paper into his armpits, hoping the trick would stem the tide of his sweat. During a chat with his supervisor, he leaned over her desk and “the wad dislodged, rolled down my shirt sleeve, and landed beside her keyboard with a sickening splat.” In addition to his personal stories, Smith describes the character traits exhibited by the different types of anxiety sufferers. He compares homesickness to anxiety and explains the radical difference between anxiety and panic attacks. During college, Smith perused the library, using literature as a diagnostic tool; he found Philip Roth’s writing especially helpful. The author eventually found solace in meditation and cognitive therapy. Smith’s narrative smoothly juxtaposes clinical language with often-excruciatingdetails of a life lived within the painful framework of severe anxiety.
A true treasure-trove of insight laced with humor and polished prose.
A journalist's bittersweet memoir about coping with her mother's dementia by preparing her mother's recipes.
When New York Times Magazine food columnist and novelist Witchel (The Spare Wife, 2008, etc.) discovered her college-professor mother was ill with dementia, she was shocked. The woman who had successfully managed to juggle marriage, motherhood and a career had also hidden her deteriorating health from her family. Witchel was suddenly forced into the position of becoming a parent to a stubborn, strong-willed mother and watching her begin "the tortuous process of disappearing in plain sight.” Overwhelmed by this role-shift and the changes it brought into her life, the author sought comfort by making the meals her mother once prepared for the family, such as meatloaf, spaghetti, roast chicken and potato latkes. Childhood memories came flooding back. Witchel remembers her mother as a gifted woman who defied both familial and social expectations to construct a professional identity for herself; as an individual who "lived her life as an act of will," was the dominant force at home and expected nothing but the best from her children. Her father may have been "the ultimate authority,” but it was her mother who "ran the show.” She was also the person who guided her daughter toward the love of gastronomy that would eventually find expression in Witchel's work as a journalist.
Warm and always humane, Witchel's narrative is a poignant, candid reminder of the new normal that now defines so many adult child-aging parent relationships.
A neurologist who specializes in the treatment of Alzheimer's disease and dementia explores how we can tap into “the neurology and physiology of our body's innate 'calm' mechanisms” to achieve greater health, happiness and success.
The director of the New York Memory and Healthy Aging services, Devi (What Your Doctor May Not Tell You About Alzheimer's Disease, 2004, etc.) unravels the functioning of the core brain, where gut reactions are processed, and explains how we can train ourselves to relax and recharge in order to face the 24/7 pressures of the fast-paced modern world. The author describes the way in which the core brain works by controlling emotions and impulses as we navigate the outside world “and the vast environmental sensor and receptacle that is our body.” Fight-or-flight reactions, as well as our relative sense of well-being or malaise, are mediated there by the vagus nerve, a frequently overlooked neural conduit that bypasses the spinal cord to connect with the body's organs. It provides a constant stream of information that tells the brain when to stress out and when to relax and monitors processes such as blood pressure. The core brain is the seat of the sympathetic nervous system, which releases an adrenaline surge when we perceive danger, and the parasympathetic system, which provides the all-clear signal when it is safe to calm down. Devi provides anecdotal evidence suggesting that meditation and yoga, by releasing bodily tension, cue the brain to relax, and she examines how affectionate gestures and shared laughter provide a similar release.
A welcome alternative approach to overtaxing our brains and then reaching for the pill bottle—should warrant serious attention.
Cheney (Manic: A Memoir, 2008) writes with brutal honesty about her tumultuous childhood trapped in the clutches of the “Black Beast”—her metaphor for the out-of-control emotional states she now recognizes as early-childhood bipolar disorder.
The author begins with a disturbing incident that occurred when she was seven. When her brother refused to relinquish his seat at the dinner table, she rammed a fork through his hand. In answer to her father's query about her violent behavior, she answered honestly, “he made me do it.” In Cheney’s mind, “he” referred not to her brother but to the monster, who “lived inside my heart and head, leaving little room for hope or joy or any emotion lighter than sorrow.” The author was only diagnosed with bipolar disorder in her late 30s. Even though she had been jailed, hospitalized and suffered a series of broken relationships, she had managed to conceal her aberrant behavior and lead an apparently successful life as an entertainment attorney. In her debut memoir, Cheney chronicled her time in college and the years that followed; here she examines her childhood and adolescence for keys to the onset of her disorder. Despite the fact that an estimated 800,000 American children have been diagnosed as bipolar, the author explains that it is easy to confuse with other mental ailments such as ADHD, or even to simply overlook it. “Given the inherent volatility of childhood and the volcanic eruptions of adolescence, how can you tell when it's bipolar disorder?” she writes. “Early-onset bipolar disorder is notoriously difficult to diagnose.” In Cheney’s case, the fact that she was an honor student with a full social life caused her parents and teachers to overlook withdrawn or bizarre behavior. By exploring her past, she hopes to make parents and educators more aware of the problems that young people may be secretly trying to deal with.
Times Literary Supplement columnist Greenberg chronicles his 15-year-old daughter Sally’s manic breakdown in vivid yet surprisingly detached prose.
In July 1996, the author awoke to find a furiously annotated copy of Shakespeare’s Sonnets and loose pages of Sally’s poetry strewn about their Greenwich Village apartment. That night, the police escorted his daughter home for “acting crazy” in the streets. Greenberg and second wife Pat pieced the story together from Sally’s breathless, incoherent account. She had been struck by a vision: We are all born geniuses, but society robs us of the gift. When the police pulled up, she was on a mission to communicate this to anyone who would listen—even people in the speeding cars she was convinced she could thwart with her hand. Michael and Pat took the “feral, glitter-eyed” Sally to the nearest emergency room, where a psychiatrist gave a preliminary diagnosis of bipolar 1 and admitted her to the psych ward. In his text, her father deals with the shock of Sally’s condition by portraying it in the context of literary madness. Greenberg quotes Lowell’s descriptions of his own manic episodes, cites Spinoza and alludes to Plato, Byron, Hemingway and Woolf. This might seem aggrandizing, but the author is trying to demonstrate that Sally’s insights are sometimes justified, while at the same time avoiding James Joyce’s fatal error of enabling his daughter’s madness by participating in her visions. Sally spent 24 days in the ward, flanked by her quirky family and a tableau of other colorful characters, before she returned home, highly medicated and bravely determined to believe her therapist’s assertion that psychosis is not an identity. Greenberg’s talent for description occasionally runs away from him in a narrative that could be slightly tighter, but his erudite portrait of bipolar disease as experienced from both inside and out is dazzling. Sally’s own precocious descriptions of her mania serve as no small aid.
Bears enlightening and articulate witness to the sheer force of an oft-misunderstood disease.
A successful, bipolar artist decides to live it up for 30 days before ending her own life.
Off her meds and manic (but certain she will never get better), Clementine Pritchard feels a sense of calm and purpose once she finally commits to killing herself. A well-known multimedia artist, Clementine suffers from debilitating, explosive mood swings not unlike the ones she witnessed her own mother going through during her childhood. Those ended badly when her mother shot herself and her younger sister Ramona, leaving Clementine to live with an aunt. Hoping to never leave her own loved ones to such a fate, she scores some animal tranquilizer in Tijuana and tells people she has inoperable brain cancer. Her inner circle, including her devoted assistant Jenny and still-smitten ex-husband Richard, try their best to help her, but her mind is made up. With the clock ticking, she makes good use of her time. She sleeps with both Richard (great) and her former shrink Miles (bad), poses nude for a rival artist and eats her way through the best ethnic takeout food L.A. has to offer. She works, too, hitting her creative stride and producing daring and dark new pieces. She also tries to get her affairs in order and find a home for her cat Chuckles, a male Persian almost as ornery as Clementine herself. Complications ensue, though, when she tracks down her long-lost father in Kansas City. Her hopes for healing and closure are turned on their head when a family drama gives her a chance, for a change, to be a caregiver rather than the one needing care. But is it enough to change her course? With her razor wit and over-it-all candor, Clementine makes for a fascinating companion, and Ream manages to craft an engaging and impressive debut without soft-pedaling how very sick Clementine is. You’ll sure miss her when she’s gone.
A psychiatrist and CNN regular examines commonly held notions of mental-health disorders and their potentials for “normalcy.”
Frustrated with today’s “overdiagnosed, overmedicated, and undertreated society,” Archer attempts to destigmatize eight common psychological ailments by quantifying the dominance level of their inherent traits. In uniquely defusing disorders ranging from ADHD and OCD to anxiety and schizophrenia, the author believes the mental-health industry has been somewhat “glamorized.” Throughout his chatty, anecdotal book, Archer convincingly argues that we can actually function normally with mildly influential characteristics of narcissism, social anxiety and bipolar disorder. When these traits are within the lower (harmless) end of the continuum and don’t become a “superdominant” mannerism, they can be seen as beneficial behavioral enhancements—e.g., high energy and enthusiasm doesn’t always mean a bipolar personality; sensitivity and deliberation shouldn’t equal social anxiety disorder. Archer’s creative redressing of these pathologically considered conditions is compelling and will definitely capture the attention of readers eager to “re-diagnose” themselves using his spectrum scale. The author, who admits to being a hyper-intuitive “world-class poker player,” does gamble a bit, however, with the free association of some of the more volatile psychological conditions in considering their lighter traits as derivatives of normalcy. Drawing heavily on his own experiences, Archer proudly advances his beliefs with episodes from his psychiatric practice, website queries and travels throughout the country. There are some fresh, modern and mildly amusing associations here; however, contrasting self-assessed symptoms of a disorder as significant as schizophrenia with the idiom of “magical thinking” will surely raise eyebrows.
Optimistic and creatively inspired assessments that occasionally overreach.
For anyone who loves graphic memoir or has concerns about bipolar swings, creativity and medication, this narrative will prove as engaging and informative as it is inspirational.
Since the connection between artistry and mental instability has been well-documented, plenty of those diagnosed with bipolar disorder share the fears articulated in this unflinchingly honest memoir by Forney (I Love Led Zeppelin, 2006, etc.). “I don’t want balance, I want brilliance!” she exclaims during one of her manic phases. “Meds would bring me down!” Taking pride in her membership in “Club van Gogh (The true artist is a crazy artist),” she subsequently suffered from periods of depression that brought her down far lower than medication even could. “During a manic episode, depression seems entirely impossible,” she writes, but depression often made it impossible for her to imagine feeling so good or feeling much of anything beyond a benumbed dread. Forney chronicles her years of therapy, her research into the literature of depression and her trial-and-error experiences with medication—and cocktails of medication—searching for the combination where the benefits outweighed the side effects. She directly confronts the challenge facing anyone trying to monitor and assess her own mental state: “How could I keep track of my mind, with my own mind?” Not only does her conversational intimacy draw readers in, but her drawings perfectly capture the exhilarating frenzy of mania and the dark void of depression. “It was a relief to discover that aiming for a balanced life doesn’t mean succumbing to a boring one,” she writes with conviction.
Forney’s story should resonate with those grappling with similar issues, while her artistry should appeal to a wide readership.
When Kaysen was 18, in 1967, she was admitted to McLean Psychiatric Hospital outside Boston, where she would spend the next 18 months. Now, 25 years and two novels (Far Afield, 1990; Asa, As I Knew Him, 1987) later, she has come to terms with the experience- -as detailed in this searing account. First there was the suicide attempt, a halfhearted one because Kaysen made a phone call before popping the 50 aspirin, leaving enough time to pump out her stomach. The next year it was McLean, which she entered after one session with a bullying doctor, a total stranger. Still, she signed herself in: ``Reality was getting too dense...all my integrity seemed to lie in saying No.'' In the series of snapshots that follows, Kaysen writes as lucidly about the dark jumble inside her head as she does about the hospital routines, the staff, the patients. Her stay didn't coincide with those of various celebrities (Ray Charles, Sylvia Plath, Robert Lowell), but we are not likely to forget Susan, ``thin and yellow,'' who wrapped everything in sight in toilet paper, or Daisy, whose passions were laxatives and chicken. The staff is equally memorable: ``Our keepers. As for finders—well, we had to be our own finders.'' There was no way the therapists—those dispensers of dope (Thorazine, Stelazine, Mellaril, Librium, Valium)—might improve the patients' conditions: Recovery was in the lap of the gods (``I got better and Daisy didn't and I can't explain why''). When, all these years later, Kaysen reads her diagnosis (``Borderline Personality''), it means nothing when set alongside her descriptions of the ``parallel universe'' of the insane. It's an easy universe to enter, she assures us. We believe her. Every word counts in this brave, funny, moving reconstruction. For Kaysen, writing well has been the best revenge.
First novel efficiently showcases the experience of developing early-onset Alzheimer’s.
In 24 months, 49-year-old Harvard psychology professor Alice Howland exchanges the role of high-achieving teacher, wife and mother of three for that of a disoriented, inarticulate, forgetful shell of her former self. Stricken much earlier than most by this progressive, degenerative disease for which there is no cure, Alice loses her profession, independence, clarity and contact with the world with shocking rapidity in a narrative that sometimes reads more like a dramatized documentary than three-dimensional fiction. Genova, an online columnist for the National Alzheimer’s Association, has a brisk style and lays out the facts of the disease—statistics, tests, drugs, clinical trials—plainly, often rather technically. The responses to Alice of her three grown-up children, who are also at risk of the disease; the struggles of her equally high-flying husband, a Harvard biologist; and Alice’s own emotional responses, including fear, suicidal thoughts, shame and panic, are offered in semi-educational fashion, sometimes movingly, sometimes mechanically. Alice’s address to the Alzheimer’s Association Annual Dementia Care Conference is an affecting final public statement before her descent into fog and the loving support of her children.
Worthy, benign and readable, but not always lifelike.
An internationally recognized authority on the relationship between stress and mental functioning explores how the same mechanisms that lay the basis for human creativity and expertise can also set us up for cognitive stagnation.
Cognitive psychologist Breznitz (Memory Fields, 1992, etc.) suggests that “our [unique] ability to find solutions buried in our experience is a hallmark of human creativity,” yet to be matched by any computer. It is the basis of an expert's rapid intuitive grasp of a situation. But it has a downside as well. With the assistance of Hemingway (co-author: The Fifth Wave: A Strategic Vision for Mobile Internet Innovation, Investment & Return, 2012, etc.), Breznitz explains how our major cognitive strength is also a potential weakness, leading us to overlook danger signals or new possibilities and trapping the brain in the “tomb of experience.” Breznitz cites research that demonstrates the proclivity of the brain to take shortcuts—e.g., automatically accepting a solution to a problem based on past experience. In a rapidly changing world, to adapt by unlearning old ways can be critical to survival. Mental rigidity, writes the author, can create a vulnerability for Alzheimer's disease and dementia later in life. However, this need not be the case. “[T]axing mental challenges” are necessary at every stage of our lives. By embracing them, we create cognitive reserves that can slow down mental deterioration even as our brains age. Despite the known problems caused by chronic stress—anxiety, depression, immune disorders, etc.—and despite the fact that any change can be stressful, it is necessary if we are to avoid mental stagnation. Among Breznitz’s recommended activities, reading ranks high.