Maybe it’s because I’m a writer, or I’m just a curious person, or I’m a lunatic (who is much better now, he says with an alarming grin), but I really like reading not only about people, but about people’s problems dealing with themselves and the world around them. People are just really interesting, and the way their heads work are likewise. So why don’t we dig into some books on people’s heads working, or not-working, as the case may be…
The Boy Who Couldn’t Stop Washing: The Experience and Treatment of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder by Judith L Rappoport, M.D.
I first picked up this book because the title caught my eye. Why couldn’t he stop washing, and what was that doing to his life? I’m a writer, obviously, that leaves me naturally fascinated with people, and one of the ways that fascination manifests itself is in the ways people have difficulties with themselves and the world around them. This book deals not only with the titular boy, who will wash his hands obsessively and constantly and spend hours in the shower, to a woman who is so obsessed with symmetrical eyebrows that she winds up plucking out all the hairs. It’s a fascinating book, a look at people for whom a logical enough thought process seems to have skipped the rails a little bit and begun to cause serious problems.
It’s an excellent book, ranging across a host of patients and problems, dealing both with the medical side of their conditions, but also dealing with their own views of the problems and the views of their family members. While it’s fascinating, though, it’s also very dry and, in many ways, a book that is intended for school-use, by my guess. While that’s something I enjoy reading (hello, I am Peter “Never Sold Back My Textbooks” Damien), I can always understand when it bores the pants off someone, even on an interesting topic.
Girl, Interrupted by Susanna Kaysen
The movie, starring the brilliant Winona Ryder and the equally brilliant Angelina Jolie (the two of which are at the front of a fantastic cast doing some amazing work) is probably the most famous version of this story, but the work is well worth your time too. A very small book and a very simple story, it’s written by Susanne Kaysen about her eighteen months in a psychiatric hospital, the people she meets there, and what’s happening to her mind before, during, and after.
As I said, it’s a small book. I read it in an afternoon, and I enjoyed it quite a lot. People looking for the movie in the book, however, might be disappointed. Kaysen criticized the movie for “adding melodrama” and inventing plot points…but I don’t see this as a fault, particularly. The book is essentially a collection of vignettes, arranged in roughly chronological order, but never coming together in any kind of narrative structure or with any kind of plot momentum. The movie shows you a lot of people and shows their stories. The book touches on their existences and problems, and little else. So while I enjoyed the book a lot, it definitely isn’t the movie.
(I read the book because at the end of the movie, I wanted to know what happened to Lisa, in the end? And the book supplied that. So that’s good.)
An Unquiet Mind by Kay Redfield Jamison
The premise of the book is fascinating (and I’m sure Doctor Jamison is thrilled to hear me describe her life as “premise”): what happens when you are both one of the foremost authorities on manic-depressive illness but also suffering from it intensely? It’s a fascinating situation, something Kay Jamison is well aware of and writes about with a great deal of sympathy toward herself and others who are suffering from the condition, but she has also has a great sense of perspective on how it isn’t just an infliction but is, in many ways, the internal motor which powers her as often as it impedes her.
An Unquiet Mind is interesting, in that it’s dryer than some narrative-non-fiction, but never reads like a textbook, the way The Boy Who Couldn’t Stop Washing tended to. She systematically chronicles her life, her relationships, and her job, all through the lens of her unquiet mind. She is a compelling character in her own narrative, and you’re really pulling for her, hoping that the relationships work out and that she both deals with her problems without costing her her job at all.
Someone recommended this book to me years ago, and I forgot both who recommended it and about the book itself…but there it was, on the shelf, next to Girl, Interrupted, and I snagged it. Whoever recommended it: excellent recommendation. Very good book.
Dirty Secret by Jessie Sholl
Like some paranoia and some conspiracy theories that I obsessively read about (more interested in the conspiracy theorists than the theories, most of the time), I am perpetually fascinated by hoarding. They feel like fairly logical trains of thought, logical impulses, which have somehow gotten a glitch in them which is causing system problems. (In a way, both are the same glitch: an inability to let go, whether of posessions or pieces of information. But we’re wandering afield now)
Anyhow, like lots of people, I got hung up for a little while on the Hoarders TV show, watching and thinking about it, recalling the apartment of a friend’s relative I was taken to in San Diego which was so full, there were canyons among the stuff to get around. The people’s thought processes fascinated me, the way they somehow managed to eke out an existence amidst all the detritus of their lives and other people’s lives as well. Eventually, I got tired of whiny people mugging for the camera (the hoarders are interesting. Many of the surrounding people just want to cry delicately on camera), but not before I bumped into Dirty Secret.
This is a fascinating work of narrative-non-fiction, reading almost like a novel, about Jessie Sholl and her lifelong attempts to deal with her mother, whom she loves, but who is a disastrous hoarder. In many ways, her mother has reduced her life to wreckage, but can neither fix it, nor really admit what has happened or get any perspective on it. And despite the problems she causes, Jessie can hardly wash her hands of her mother and just move on with life. Good or bad, they love each other, and they have to deal somehow.
The book is a fascinating narrative, with a lot of perspective. Nobody is good or evil in the book. The mother is unreasonable and a disaster, but not a bad person per se, and you never feel more than intense frustration at her throughout the story. It’s an excellent book I’ve now bought twice and read several times, and one which I happily push on lots of people whenever I can. That’s what I’m doing here, actually. Go. Read it. Hurry up. Quit messing about on the internet, c’mon already.
So that’s my list, and most of my recent reading. I’m not nearly done on this topic, though, so if you have any suggestions that seem like they’d follow from the above list, I’d be thrilled if you drop ’em in the comments. There’s no such thing as too many books on a topic, after all.