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Stranger to Ourselves

Unsettled Minds and the Stories That Make Us

Written By: Rachel Aviv

Published By: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Reviewed By: Melissa Minners

I am very interested in the field of psychology, so when Netgalley offered me the opportunity to read Strangers to Ourselves by Rachel Aviv, I jumped on the chance.  The book was described as a “groundbreaking exploration of mental illness and the mind.”  According to the description, Rachel Aviv was going to explain how mental disorders can affect who we are in society and she would do this by inviting us into the lives of a number of individuals diagnosed with mental disorders.  I quickly downloaded the book…and then it sat.  Life was such that I didn’t get the chance to read Rachel Aviv’s book until now, but I can’t wait to tell our readers about the experience.

Rachel Aviv is not a psychiatrist or psychologist.  She’s a staff writer for The New Yorker with unique insight into the world of mental disorders – she was diagnosed with one at a young age.   Thus, he opens the book with a discussion of her childhood diagnosis of anorexia after the divorce of her parents and their ongoing custody battle.  Her stay in the hospital was supposed to help her overcome anorexia, but Rachel tells us something that we may not realize – staying with others who have the same or similar diagnosis can lead to an intensity in your own diagnosis.  She would learn tricks of the trade, so to speak, from other patients who had been dealing with the diagnosis much longer than she had, how to avoid meals, how to eat large meals and get rid of them shortly afterwards, etc.  While her parents were blaming each other for her anorexia, Rachel was learning how to be a better anorexic from her hospital mates.  After six weeks, she was released from the hospital and soon afterwards she was no longer exhibiting symptoms of anorexia.  Could the symptoms have been exacerbated by her stay with other anorexics or was this something Rachel needed to work out herself?

The other stores Rachel has included in her book are just as thought-provoking.  Particularly of interest are the chapters about Bapu and Naomi.  Through her research of these individuals’ journals, interviews with people who knew them, and more, Rachel paints us a picture of how a lack of culturally educated psychology harmed these two individuals.  Bapu was a Brahmin, a daughter to a family in India’s highest caste.  Her arranged marriage proved to be difficult for her and eventually, she turned to religion to deal with the pressures and stresses of everyday life.  She immersed herself in religion, eventually believing that she was a prophet.  This, of course, landed her in a psychiatric institution, but she would only ever thrive when people allowed her to be the person she believed herself to be. 

Naomi was a single mother of multiple children in an economically depressed area of Chicago.  She had become obsessed with the history of Black women in America and the deprivations her ancestors faced.  Naomi looked at her current situation, growing up in poverty and then becoming a single mother in the same situation as her own mother, and she could see no way out.  She thought she was saving her children when she threw them from a bridge.  This led to incarceration and time in a psychiatric institution.  However, there is a great deal of cultural bias in psychology and not a great deal of knowledge regarding how other races, religions and creeds respond to the idea of getting psychiatric help.  Naomi’s issues weren’t looked at objectively and it took a great deal of time for Naomi to come to terms with her illness.

Strangers to Ourselves asks us to read each story with an open mind as we learn that the field of psychiatry is not always infallible.  Sometimes meds are good for a patient, sometimes psychotherapy is needed.  Some doctors just tend to throw meds at patients without really getting down to the real diagnosis.  Cultural bias can often get in the way of treatment.  Cultural education regarding differences between cultures of countries, socioeconomic cultures, and more are necessary for purveyors of psychology to embark on a useful treatment for any individual patient.

This book questions various methods, mistakes, medications and more without actually saying any one thing is wrong.  By doing so Rachel Aviv forces us to ask our own questions as to whether reform is needed in the field of psychology.  Strangers to Ourselves is a captivating and educating journey and well worth the read.

Check out Strangers to Ourselves at Amazon



Published by Melissa Minners

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