A 19th-century German doctor gropes toward humane treatment of the mentally ill in a poignant story based on a real physician.
Again using her keen intelligence and deftly economical writing to illustrate an important moment in the history of science, the British Dudman, whose 2004 One Day The Ice Will Reveal Its Dead presented the birth of plate tectonic theory, creates a life for the pioneering psychiatrist Heinrich Hoffmann. Hoffmann has a certain literary notoriety for Struwwelpeter or Shockheaded Peter, his ghastly but magnetic collection of didactic verses for children. Struwwelpeter, originally illustrated by Hoffmann himself, was hugely popular for decades and remains available (Google it; it’s not to be missed), but Dudman’s interest is in Hoffmann’s early efforts to break away from the awful remedies that had been used for centuries to treat the insane, epileptic, retarded and otherwise inconvenient souls in this world. Trained in Heidelberg, Hoffmann worked his way into management of the insane asylum in Frankfurt, where Dudman presents him with Hannah Meyer, a young woman from the Jewish ghetto whose mother hopes Hoffmann can help her recover from a mental breakdown. Hannah’s bleak and confused thoughts are interwoven with Hoffmann’s early efforts, a structure that makes for slow going at first. As Hannah’s broken-hearted history is gradually revealed, so are the stories and states of the inmates and staff of the asylum. Hoffmann’s own life is nearly as bleak as his patients’ own lives. His grasping wife Therese has banished her oldest son, Heinrich’s favorite, to boarding school so that she won’t have to deal with his disturbing adolescence. After conventional and dreadful treatments such as galvanic shock and ice water dunkings fail to bring Hannah back, Hoffmann simply talks to her about his own troubles until she is engaged and begins to return from her state of despair.
Dudman’s artistry matches her historic research, and the combination is very rich.