Thursday, January 1, 2009

Review: Adam Haslett, You Are Not A Stranger Here, [Doubleday, New York, 2002]

As reviewers of Adam Haslett's collection of nine short stories have repeatedly noted these stories are beautifuly, masterfully written. I am mentioning them on this page because they are also important stories for psychiatrists to read. Just a list should give an idea of what I mean.
'Notes to my Biographer' is the story of a manic father visiting his gay son, told by the manic father. It is hard to recall the last time I have read a story told by a manic narrator, without the author intervening to explain the meaning of what is being said. In 'The Good Doctor' a young psychiatrist visits a deeply traumatized woman. His efforts to reach out to her, guided by the best precepts of our field, are so clumsy and ineffective that the story acheives a tragic dimension. How little psychiatrists understand of the meaning of their conversations with others? How presumptious we are in think that we do understand?
Some of the stories have homosexual themes. 'The Beginning of Grief' relates the efforts of a teenage boy to find comfort, following the deaths of his parents, in a violent homosexual encounter. 'Reunion' allows a man dying of AIDS to relate the story of his last days. In both of these I felt a profoundly uncomfortable sense of being in the skin of the protagonists, and a better understanding of what it is like to live lives different from mine.
Depression, suicide and madness are also Haslett's themes. 'My Father's Business' is a zany but poignant story composed of typescripts of the 'anecdotal sociology' project of a patient in a psychiatric hosptial who wants to know how people became interested in philosophy. It offered me a haunting reflection on madness, philosophy and living.
What provides hope in these stories is the capacity of the doomed, or at least the damaged, to give each other comfort. In 'Devotion' Haslett allows us to trace the strands that knot the lives of a brother and sister together. In 'Wars End' a profoundly depressed, suicidal man finds comfort in reading to a boy dying of a horrible skin disease. In 'The Volunteer' an awkward teen-aged boy with a depressed mother finds the caring of a mother in a psychotic woman, who finds the love of a son in him.
This brief summary should convey why this book might be of interest to psychiatrists. Beyond his fine writing, I am grateful to Adam Haslett for writing about these themes without cant, jargon or reductionism. In an era of psychobable, it is no mean achievement to write simply and to convey something of experience that we as psychiatrists are often to blinkered to see.

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