A psychiatrist reflects on his childhood and the family members who struggled with mental health issues.
In this sympathetic memoir, psychiatrist Hallowell (CrazyBusy: Overstretched, Overbooked, and About to Snap! Strategies for Coping in a World Gone ADD, 2006, etc.) creates a memorable portrait of his younger self in relation to the colorful and often troubled family members who influenced his personal and professional development, several of whom dealt with alcoholism and/or mental illness, including both his parents and one of his brothers. A defining event of his early childhood occurred after his parents divorced and his mother remarried a charming but unstable man who had a violent drinking problem that surfaced after they moved from their familiar Cape Cod home to North Carolina. Though traumatized by this disruption within his family, Hallowell had the good fortune and family means to attend private boarding schools, where he excelled in his studies and expanded his social life. Through continued effort, he went on to attend medical school. In the latter portion of the narrative, the author touches on his internships and eventual practice, devoting much attention to stories of his patients. For the most part, Hallowell is a generous and lively storyteller, and he shares inspiring insights into his family and the patients he has treated. Yet he is surprisingly less forthcoming about tackling his own issues or feelings. “The price I paid is that I carry a lot of sadness inside me,” he writes. “But that also gives me a deeper understanding of other people’s sadness that lectures and books can’t provide.” His narrative lacks a driving momentum or evolving tension to grab readers’ imaginations. Compared to other writers whose memoirs address similar issues of familial dysfunction—Mary Karr and Tobias Wolff come to mind—Hallowell’s approach feels passive. He has a warm, reassuring voice, but readers may feel that there wasn’t enough at stake.
An affectionate, well-meaning memoir of how a psychiatrist gained empathy through his family’s troubled lives.