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As a writer, I’m only anything if observant. And yet I have frightening blind spots. Despite the low square footage of my Harlem apartment, too often I can’t find things in it. Clothes, shoes, the remote. Even the can opener, which has only one place of keeping, the utensils drawer, which I search through and swear doesn’t contain the utensil it inevitably must. On the other hand, things I can find easily — and know I can find easily — I waste my time finding (my wallet, keys, and phone), a vestige of my childhood compulsions.

Such as knowing the location of my security animals. As a child I had a stuffed Tigger which I brought on sleepovers and errands with my mother. Around the third grade I added a rhinoceros named Rhino.

The night I couldn’t find Rhino, we were shacked up in a transitional apartment; we were moving about an hour away from where I had great friends and awesome sports teams and a sense of home. I wasn’t inconsolable, but unconsciously desperate. Searching not my room, but some proxy box-with-bed, I felt poles of sick hope and futility pulling from each end of me, with the magnetic force of an ultimatum I hadn’t agreed to. Too young to question the imperative of Rhino’s presence, my dread that he was still missing bemused me. Childhood is rife with navigating conflicting feelings. Most of the time, that’s when you called for Mom. More… “A Year in Psychoanalysis”

Brian Birnbaum grew up just outside Baltimore. An MFA graduate of Sarah Lawrence College, his work has been published or is forthcoming in The Collagist, Atticus Review, 3AM Magazine, and more. Brian is a Child of Deaf Adults (CODA) working in development for the family communications access business. He lives in Harlem with MK Rainey and their dog.
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Why do so many poets commit suicide? My daughter’s away at college and planning to be a poet. Needless to say, I’m worried. Can you say anything to discourage this trend? — R. D.

 

I once dressed up as Sylvia Plath for a “Dress as Your Favorite Poet” festival. I wore a box painted as an oven over my head. Funny, right? Plath’s dramatic exit from this world has made her the poster child for poets who have committed suicide: John Berryman, Anne Sexton, and more recently, Sarah Hannah — professor at Emerson College, where I received my MFA. Those are only three names swimming in the sea of dead tortured artists — we always use that term, don’t we? We hide the agent by using the passive case, suggesting a flawed psychosis or something else so private… More…

I think my wife is losing her mind. She kept calling me by the wrong name all weekend, and when we were out yesterday, she dug through the garbage can near the bus stop and double-checked all the discarded lottery tickets. And she recently started doing other odd things (alphabetizing our books and DVDs, ordering take out from a Mexican restaurant when she hates Mexican food). What should I do?

– V.D.

I’m afraid I need a little more information here. If she’s at the target age for senility, then maybe this is something you should tell her doctor. If she’s middle-aged, she may be having a mild mid-life crisis. If she’s pregnant, pregnancy forgetfulness and the nesting instinct may be kicking in. But I have to say that these things seem pretty innocuous to me. I mean, my husband keeps an eye out for discarded lottery tickets, too. I… More…

I think we are entering a new Freudian era. This struck me as I was recently reading some stories in the New York Times science section: Depressive disorders may have a beneficial mechanism behind them; dreams may be meaningful after all; and hysteria — now called conversion disorders, and by which they mean the physical expression of emotional trauma — may actually exist. This may not totally redeem Freud from his sex-obsessed cokehead crackpot reputation, but this is his territory.

The Shaking Woman or A History of My Nerves by Siri Hustvedt. 224 pages. Henry Holt and Co. $23.00

For decades, Freud has been slowly discredited until his name is more a punchline than a scientific reference. But the more science wades into the murky territory of the mind, the more we see… More…

Poor Saint Augustine. For years now people have drawn the source of the memoir back to his Confessions. As if because of that book, Augustine’s hands now bear the ink stains of James Frey, tales of addiction, incest and mental illness, the word “momoir,” and a dozen Holocaust survivor fakers. Just like Jane Austen, who occasionally bears the blame for the candy-coated chick lit aisle of your local bookstore, Augustine deserves a better legacy.

Memoir: A History by Ben Yagoda. 304 pages. Riverhead. $25.95.

Even Ben Yagoda accuses Augustine of the crime of inventing the memoir in his new book Memoir: A History. It’s a long road from Confessions — written around 400 A.D. — to the memoir’s current dominance in the publishing scene, although the template hasn’t changed much in all of those centuries: I have done some… More…

Back in junior high school health class, we were told that the brain has two different hemispheres — the left and the right. The left brain, the textbook stated, is responsible for language, math, and science, logic and rationality. The right brain was the artistic one, the creative half of the brain. But that’s not quite true. Neuroimaging and experiments on patients with split brains and brain damage to only one hemisphere have allowed a much more detailed, and fascinating, accounting of how the two parts interact with the world, and how they combine to become a unified consciousness (and, in some cases of mental disorders, how they occasionally don’t). Iain McGilchrist has combined scientific research with cultural history in his new book The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World to examine how the evolution of the brain influenced our society, and… More…

Maybe one of the greatest gifts moving overseas has given me is distance from the absolutely batshit health care debate going on in the United States. Before I left, I could barely stomach the yelling, the sign waving, and the pundits’ pronouncements that “the United States has the best health care system in the world!” Ten minutes of the nightly news was enough to bring me to the brink of a coronary incident.

Danger to Self: On the Front Line with an ER Psychiatrist by Paul Linde. 280 pages. University of California Press. $24.95. Doctoring the Mind: Is Our Current Treatment of Mental Illness Really Any Good? by Richard P. Bentall. 384 pages. NYU Press. $29.95. Healing the Broken Mind: Transforming America’s Failed Mental Health System by Timothy Kelly. 193 pages. NYU Press. $25.95. The Sixties by Jenny Diski. 160 pages. Picador…. More…

Publishing – and not just nature – abhors a vacuum, and the chasm between Peter Kramer (Listening to Prozac) and the assorted others who sing the praises of psychopharmacology, and the group led by folks like Eric G. Wilson (Against Happiness) who believe depression is good for you, certainly was airless. It was only a matter of time before the industry tried to fill the gap with books that acknowledged people’s growing distrust of Prozac and its brethren but also their belief that depression is something that should be fought and eradicated.

Unstuck: Your Guide to the Seven-Stage Journey Out of Depression by James S. Gordon. Penguin. 448 pages. $16.00 (new in paperback). The Depression Cure: The 6-Step Program to Beat Depression without Drugs by Stephen S. Ilardi. De Capo Lifelong Books. 304 pages. $25.00.

The last few… More…

The past year’s headlines from Eastern Europe bleed together like a Virginia Woolf novel whose characters hang on in quiet desperation:

Bulgarians are Europe’s most dissatisfied – survey

Poll finds Hungarians increasingly glum

Romania’s anti-corruption efforts slow down — or go backwards

Sad and depressed generation is being created [in Croatia]

Even suicide is stagnating [in Hungary]

Germans miss the ‘good old days’ of the GDR

It’s been 20 years since the Iron Curtain opened. Back in ’89, the promise of capitalism and liberal democracy was supposed to lead the famously gloomy region into a new era of hope and optimism. But, as the newspapers say, it hasn’t quite worked out that way. Lech Walesa — the man who gave us Solidarity and a “national treasure,” according to the current President of Poland — is so fed up, he is now threatening to emigrate and renounce his Nobel Prize. Last… More…

 

Usually when someone starts talking about how our inner cavemen chafes against our modern lifestyles, it’s a man justifying his cheating on his wife: “I am not built for monogamy — I am programmed to spread my seed!” Our sex lives are not the only part of us that goes against “nature.” From our diets to our urban surroundings to our parenting, modern life occasionally goes so against our evolutionary impulses that we become sick. With depression and obesity on the rise, and our recent exiting from the most violent century in the history of mankind, the warning signs that we are living wrong keep showing up.

When we talk about human evolution, it’s helpful to remember that we are a mere speck on the Earth. The Earth is estimated to be around 4.5 billion years old. The… More…