First-book author Barber recalls the suicide of one boyhood friend, the disintegration of another, his own experiences working with the homeless, mentally handicapped and mentally ill—and wonders why he’s been able to emerge from the tangled wood and others have not.
Barber (Yale Program for Recovery and Community Health/Yale Univ. School of Medicine) mixes affecting autobiographical anecdotes, self-deprecating humor, summaries of psychiatric cases and speculations about the meaning of life. He begins with his most powerful segment, the 1983 suicide of his close friend Henry, an act no one witnessed but that Barber imagines with great poignancy. (Later, he employs, to diminishing effect, the same technique in imagining the suicide of that same friend’s mother, who years later killed herself in the same remote location and fashion as her son.) Barber relates many stories about his school and collegiate days (he dropped out of Harvard, then returned and graduated), including some harrowing times when he watched Henry systematically destroy every object in his room. He also tells about his long struggles with OCD (Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder) and his initially liberating experiences with Prozac, along the way offering some details about his parents and about his courtship and marriage. He sort of backed into the mental health profession by taking a job in a home for the mentally retarded, which led to his eventually working long hours at Bellevue and helping at homeless shelters. His wife’s pregnancy, he says, transported him from the shelters to the Ivy League. In closing, Barber observes that he and his close friends—all bright, all successful in school—might have struggled because they’d had to create their own war to fight, unlike the WWII and Vietnam generations, who were challenged by history more directly and profoundly. Some of the segments—especially the long case narratives—seem more tangential than essential.
Moments of undeniable power punctuate a sometimes disordered narrative.