Thursday, March 3, 2011

Bibliotherapy and Beyond 06/2008: Memoirs

The summer reading season is upon us!  How delightful it is to lounge on a warm Sunday afternoon sipping a cold glass of iced tea while savoring a good book.  I always try to save my best reads for the summer because somehow summer reading is the best of all.  Most of us are so chronically busy these days that relaxing with a good book on Sunday afternoon may seem like too much of a frivolous luxury to indulge in.  After all, there are so many other more constructive things we should be doing, right?  Wrong!  First of all, we must practice what we preach.  If we preach balance to our clients, we must practice balance ourselves.  So a little indulgence becomes self-care, which is professionally responsible.  Second, if you read the books I recommend in this column you get to enjoy yourself, relax AND get some work done.  That’s a win-win all around.

This month, I am focusing on memoirs.  Memoirs are huge assets in our work as psychotherapists.  They can be as engrossing as novels but they have much more credibility.  After all, what better way to learn than to hear about it from someone who has actually been there and prevailed in a way that is interesting enough to publish?  Its far more efficient and enjoyable than actually having to go through the experiences ourselves!  There are so many great memoirs out there so it was hard to winnow down my list but upon reflection, these are my top three:

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou (1969)
Maya Angelou is an amazing person and she seems even more amazing after you read her memoir.  Ms. Angelou is an African American poet who has inspired many women, including Oprah, to rise above oppression.  Considering all she’s been through, we would completely understand it if she spent the rest of her life curled up in the corner in a fetal position in a Seroquel haze instead of writing prize winning poetry.  The book is beautifully written.  Although some of her experiences are truly horrifying, the lovely prose keeps you reading.  She writes about victimization and helplessness with journalistic precision paired with compassion and hard-earned wisdom.  Reading this book is an enjoyable, engrossing and inspiring experience.

The Glass Castle by Jeanette Wells (2005)
This New York Times bestseller is one of the starkest dysfunctional family dramas I’ve ever read (and I’ve read a LOT of them).  Both of the author’s parents drag their four kids through the horrors of their mental illnesses. Depending on their parents’ folie de jour the children alternate between feeling neglected or abused and believing they are the luckiest, most special, cherished children on earth.   Their father is a master spinner of tales paired with misguided genius and unrequited dreams.  He is never formally diagnosed but symptoms of narcissism, antisocial personality, paranoid delusions, psychosis, bipolar disorder and alcoholism are evident.  Their mother is depressed, dependent, histrionic and ineffectual (borderline comes to mind).  One sister ends up schizophrenic but the other three children demonstrate a resilience that is remarkable to behold.  This book demonstrates that all children from dysfunctional households do not have to end up dysfunctional themselves.  The author’s compassionate but unflinching consideration of her complex, chaotic and heartbreaking childhood raises fascinating questions about the varying roles of adversity, resilience, love and redemption in personality development.          

Divided Minds by Pamela Spiro Wagner and Carolyn S. Spiro, M.D. (2005)
What is it really like to be schizophrenic?  How can we even begin to imagine the chaos in the mind of someone who is psychotic?  If you want to know, read this book.  Divided Minds chronicles the lives of a pair of identical twins raised in an upper middle class family in Connecticut from their earliest memories (in the 1950’s) to the present.  One twin, Pam has chronic paranoid schizophrenia and the other twin, Carolyn, is a psychiatrist (I know, I know, hold the jokes please!).  The twins, who are now in their 50s, wrote the book together, primarily during the psychotic twin’s more lucid (aka well-medicated) moments.  For the researchers among us, please note that this pair of twins represents one of the most fascinating natural experiments in the etiology of schizophrenia to date. This illuminating and compellingly readable book will forever change your understanding of psychosis.  

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