An exploration of dissociative identity disorder, this fourth novel by Peterson (My Life in a Nutshell: A Novel, 2014, etc.) valiantly addresses the stigma of mental illness.
In the book’s opening pages, Isaac Bittman appears not unlike any other suburban father. Having returned from playing tennis with his friend Max, he starts organizing a birthday party for his young son Dominic. A sense of unease only begins to creep in when Isaac cannot recall setting up an obstacle course for the party and vehemently denies making it, until Max shows him photographs that prove otherwise. Soon, Isaac’s illness gains an uncontrollable and nauseating momentum. He does not remember his actions, and his life begins to break apart. He becomes uncharacteristically violent, loses his job, and his family life begins to suffer. His devoted wife, Reese, attempts to understand his suffering, but when Isaac disappears and is found half dead in the Idaho backwoods, it becomes desperately clear that he requires a level of care that she alone cannot provide. On being admitted to a specialist mental health facility to undergo a revolutionary form of treatment, Isaac asks the doctor: “But Dr. Charlie, what if they don’t? Get better, I mean. What if things just keep getting worse because I’m here? What if I find out things I really shouldn’t know?...I’ll be lost in a new way, a way that’s way worse than ever before.” Peterson’s language captures perfectly the uncertainty of patients facing a mental illness where all solid ground becomes unstable and threatens to give way beneath their feet. The doctor’s answer reflects the magnificent sense of hope captured in the remainder of the novel: “There are answers. Not always obvious or easy ones, but answers nonetheless.” The book proves to be dazzlingly analytical and delicately sympathetic in equal measure. The strength of Peterson’s My Life in a Nutshell lay in its realism and the author’s ability to deftly construct complex psychological portraits. More of the same is offered here, although it appears that the author is even closer to her subject and is able to say to the reader in earnest: this is mental illness, this is how it feels. Few writers possess the courage or working knowledge to draw back the veil on this still largely taboo subject. Peterson possesses this rare talent.
Educational and affecting; the importance of the author’s ongoing mission to demystify the world of mental health care should not be overlooked.