Reading New Yorker staff writer Rachel Aviv’s debut, Strangers to Ourselves: Unsettled Minds and the Stories That Make Us (September 13, 2022, Farrar, Straus and Giroux), I realized I had an unintentional trend this year of reading about selfhood in some form. It started with the first book I read in the year, Will Storr’s Selfie: How We Became So Self-Obsessed and What It’s Doing to Us (more on it later).
Aviv’s book is a set of profiles/case studies on various forms of mental illness connected to questions around self and identity, but which also don’t respond to conventional therapies, whether pharmaceutical or otherwise.
At least, that’s my take on it — as much as I enjoyed reading this, I found myself unclear on what the overarching, uniting thesis of it was supposed to be. Not that everything needs to have a thesis: I’m a firm believer in just enjoying the informational journey, as it were. But this gave the distinct impression of lacking something cohesive, or maybe — and I don’t mean to be self-deprecating, just honest — whatever it was went over my head. The synopsis says that Aviv “raises fundamental questions about how we understand ourselves in periods of crisis and distress,” and that’s very true, and maybe that’s enough for what it is.
Aviv herself was the youngest person in the US to be diagnosed as anorexic, at age six. But as she herself explains it, it was an atypical kind of anorexia, and I wonder if that’s even what it actually was, especially as she doesn’t seem to have continued to suffer eating disorders or the obsessive fascination with them that characterizes long-term suffering. But her early diagnosis sets the stage for the case studies to come, as none of the people profiled conform to easy, DSM-style categorizations of mental illness.
During her inpatient treatment, Aviv idolized the older girls there, and after opening the book with her own story, she closes it by looping back to one of them, Hava. I liked this bookending mechanism and it was powerful here, if ultimately a bit self-centric, but I guess that’s the point: how our identities are shaped by others or by group identity when we’re told we’re the same – there are a lot of ideas tossed around here.
In other chapters, she explores the lives and disorders of Dr. Ray Osheroff, a physician whose experience shows the shift towards treatment of mental illness with medication despite its obvious limitations; Bapu, a Hindi woman who may have had schizophrenia; Naomi Gaines, a Black single mother whose untreated mental illness, connected with her experiences with race and poverty, led her to throw her baby sons off a bridge; and Laura, whose overmedication changed her entire sense of self and complicated her conditions even further.
There were so many interesting ideas explored, and a lot of empathy that is necessary to understand others’ experiences and why mental illness is so tricky to treat. The common thread, as far as I can tell, is that these cases that don’t respond to conventional therapies are maybe more the norm than the exception.
Naomi’s story was the one that affected me the most, and that I think speaks to imperative issues in America at the moment. Non-white people are undertreated for mental illness (for any illness, actually) while suffering under systematic oppression and discrimination that compound it. I didn’t expect to feel empathy for Naomi after learning she’d killed one of her children, but her experience and the context of it were so well told and emphasized circumstances that we can’t ignore.
I think a lot about these stories, lives, and experiences will stick with me, even if I’m unsure what to make of the collection as a whole.
I received an advance copy courtesy of the publisher for unbiased review.
Used or new @SecondSale.com
The aforementioned Selfie caught my eye immediately just from the title; how could it not. Like many of us, I’m concerned with how our age of social media navel-gazing is unrealistically changing how we perceive ourselves, much to our mental detriment. Journalist Storr “takes us from the shores of Ancient Greece, through the Christian Middle Ages, to the self-esteem evangelists of 1980s California, the rise of narcissism and the selfie generation, and right up to the era of hyper-individualistic neoliberalism in which we live now.”
This was unbelievably interesting in all that it covers, if overly ambitious – I found myself getting lost and scattered with all the different tracks it takes. It’s one I could picture reading again because there’s too much absorb in one pass. I was also more interested in modern iterations of self-obsession than historical, though of course historical precedent is crucial in tracking how our sense of self has developed.
And it’s more than a little unsettling. I especially appreciated the frank discussions of suicide Storr engages in. And one little point that has stuck with me the most was his mention of research that demonstrates that everyone, even people who haven’t yet reached them, is fixated on their twenties. Basically, when asked to define oneself or one’s most significant, life-shaping events, people immediately conjure up their twenties. I am so fascinated with this idea! My thirties have been clearly better than my twenties, and yet for some reason this holds true for me. There’s a magic sheen over my twenties that consistently makes me compelled to define myself by that era and what happened or what I did then. I love explorations of this kind of psychology.
So many interesting ideas here, and Storr is a fun, smart, and sensitive journalist and writer who goes all-in on exploring his topics. He’s almost a more bookish, research-heavy Jon Ronson. (I’ve got Storr’s foray into the supernatural to get to this month for Frighteningly Good Reads and I can’t wait!) Published 2019 by Abrams. Used or new @SecondSale.com
In The Man Who Wasn’t There: Investigations into the Strange New Science of the Self, science writer Anil Ananthaswamy uses the lens of neuroscience to examine cases of people who struggle with ideas around the nature of self in a wide, surprising range of ways. It’s a readable, excellent example of a superb science communicator who can break down complex ideas and processes, particularly in neuroscience – a not exactly simple and straightforward area – for lay readers.
Ananthaswamy covers conditions including schizophrenia, autism, Alzheimer’s, ecstatic epilepsy, out-of-body experiences, and Cotard’s syndrome (believing you’re dead, among other delusional convictions). But by far the most affecting stories here were in the chapter on Body Integrity Identity Disorder (BIID). I had never heard of this before: it’s people who experience an extremely intense mismatch between body and brain, namely, that a normal, healthy limb does not really belong to them.
Strange as this sounds, Ananthaswamy empathetically shows exactly why it’s so consumingly disturbing to sufferers, to the point that psychotherapy has proven unhelpful and the only solution providing relief is amputation of the healthy limb. I was completely shocked by this, but he profiles a man getting an illegal leg amputation by a surgeon who does his best to help those truly suffering under this condition despite the risk to himself and his own practice and it’s clear what it meant to him. The complexities of what comprises the self and what we’ll do to feel at home in our own bodies and brains are astonishing.
Our brains and neurological structures are so incredibly powerful. The more I learn about this area, the more amazed I am. This book was a stunning example of how some of this goes when it goes wrong, and the unique pain of having to question who you are if you’re afflicted with one of these conditions.
published 2015 by Dutton. Used or new @SecondSale.com
I can understand your fascination with this topic Rennie, given our self-obsessed world. My daughters will be 20 next month and from where I sit, I feel social media and cell phone cameras have not been helpful to the mental health of their generation.
It’s interesting to read that we define ourselves somewhat as the person we were in our 20s. Last night I had the weirdest dream. I was definitely in my 20s again and also looked entirely different than I have ever looked with short blond hair and a prominent hooked nose, black eye liner… And I was an intern for Donald Trump. Yes, a bit of nightmare but not an extreme one. More of a stress dream and when I woke, I couldn’t imagine where this image of myself had sprung from. I’m over 60, yet the 20-something aspect of my dream persona seemed perfectly natural.
The book that appeals to me most is the third on your list. It sounds a bit like something Oliver Sacks might have written.
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I cant imagine how hard it would be to be growing up right now, your daughters’ age, in this time of ubiquitous social media. It’s been hard enough for me from my position as a “geriatric millennial” but I still remember a time before screens everywhere and can shut off from it when necessary. That seems harder to do for the generation that came after.
That dream!!! How weird! Although I still feel nightmarish at the thought of anything Donald trump-related so that part makes sense. Isn’t it strange how natural that image of yourself in your 20s feels? I had never made that connection until reading this, or I just thought I was a little embarrassingly fixated on myself in that period. But no, apparently everyone does it! I wonder if it has at least something to do with the brain development taking place at that time.
The Man Who Wasn’t There drew a lot of Sacks comparisons – I’m ashamed to admit I still haven’t read him yet! I have one on my shelf to get to. I really enjoyed it and I thought he explained the science quite well. It was kind of terrifying but compelling to learn about how very minor tweaks in neurological wiring could cause such massive disorders.
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Great reviews as always! I gave up on Selfie halfway through, I think because it just wasn’t quite what I was wanting to learn about – but it sounds like maybe I should pick it back up because there’s a payoff in the second half of the book that was maybe closer to what I was really wanting to learn about.
This is a vague question for which I apologize, but did you review a book that had a really great quote in it about how learning about something, no matter what it even is, can be very helpful and healing when someone is struggling with mental health issues – it may have been a memoir about disordered eating, but I’m not sure? There was this profound quote that I wanted to return to, and to read the whole book as well, but I lost track of it! If that doesn’t sound familiar then maybe it was a different blog where I saw it but I just can’t think of where it could have been.
Thanks Rennie 🙂
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Selfie was definitely not what I was expecting and I didn’t love all of it, but I did think it had some very worthwhile info. I also think it wasn’t a good one to read straight through – I’d much rather pick it up and flip through it randomly here and there – I think it’s one of those you’d get more out of that way, in small bits!
And yes, I know exactly which book you mean: it’s The Reading Cure by Laura Freeman. Here’s the review link: https://whatsnonfiction.com/2022/06/18/recent-foodie-reads-food-as-philosophy-healing-technique-and-revolution
That quote and idea behind it struck me very strongly too! I’m glad it resonated with you and that you could find out about it here 😊 it was a great memoir, with a lot of interesting ideas around healing in various forms, I really recommend it if it piqued your interest! Let me know what you think if you get to it!
Thank you SO much! It really did pique my interest and then I somehow just could not figure out or find by searching what I was trying to think of 🙂 I really appreciate your pointing me in the right direction, and can’t wait to read the book. Thanks for the tips about Selfie too!
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My pleasure!! Hope you find it a meaningful read 🙂
Wow! The story of people wanting to have healthy limbs amputated is one for Chris’s Stranger Than Fiction prompt this week!
I also like being in my thirties more than in my twenties, but found my twenties more important and more formative. I think it’s something about just getting to be an independent for the first time that’s really shapes a person. I wonder if this reflects an obsession with youth and beauty as well – it’s the youngest and probably the most conventionally attractive most of us will be as adults!