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Book Reviews

There certainly are a lot of self-help books out there, written by a lot of so-called experts on stress management and life coaching. Which one of the recent avalanche is worth your money?

None of ‘em. The only self-help book worth your money isn’t even a self-help book. It’s usually sold under psychology. It’s “Man’s Search for Meaning: An Introduction to Logotherapy” (1946) written by Viktor Frankl (1905 – 1997), a Nazi concentration camp survivor. Now, honestly — who do you think knows more about getting through stressful times — someone who lived through Auschwitz, or someone who chats with Oprah?

Other self-help books are nice and they can give you ideas or a good laugh, but you can get them for free in a library. This is the only one I recommend actually buying.

Brace Yourself

This isn’t “Chicken Soup of the Soul.” The book has a very grim beginning and a somber tone throughout. Frankl doesn’t dwell on the horrors he witnessed, although what he does mention can be nightmare-inducing. However, he never gets maudlin or even self-pitying. “Bad things happen and that’s the way things are,” is more the tone of voice you’ll find in “Man’s Search for Meaning”.

But if you can find a meaning for your life, it makes getting through the bad times that much easier. Frankl’s meaning was to survive long enough to write a book. He would eventually start the logotherapy movement in psychology, which teaches that the quest to find their own meaning to their lives is the prime driving force behind a person’s actions.

Personal Reaction

I find the book even more comforting than many modern self-help or positive thinking books. I have been through too much

in my personal life to pay much attention to “rah-rah” books (as I call them).  I’ve been robbed, cheated, beaten up and had my home flooded out and then burnt down in the course of my life.  I have endogenous recurring depression.  And I firmly believe I did wish these things upon myself.  These events just happened.  No one’s to blame.  But I am to blame if I keep wallowing in self-pity.

For example, I really didn’t want to get out of bed today.  But I have to go to work.  The meaning is to get money for food.  It might not be a really deep meaning, but it’s meaning enough.

You will find your own meaning when going through incredibly stressful situations.  For example, perhaps you’re stuck in a dead-end retail job (which has also happened to me).  It’s the best job you can find.  You hate it, but you’ve got to bring home a paycheck.  Your meaning is to bring food home to your family.  That’s a noble goal.  You have to focus on that in order to keep from going starkers, sometimes.

And it certainly helps to breathe deeply in these stressful situations.  “Man’s Search for Meaning” helps remind me to keep breathing deeply when life sucks.

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This is a small book covering a large topic — the history of the treatment of mentally ill patients. Since this is short book with lots of illustrations, I’ll give it a short review — PASS. Although a short book on mental illness treatment seems like a good idea, it’s not. You just cannot do justice to this subject in a hundred pages (or so.)

I was very disappointed with this book published by Oxford University Press in 2008. Madness: A Brief History has two very repetitive chapters (to the point where they were nearly identical). Modern treatment only got a brief mention. Causes of mental illness gets no mention, unless it related to the history of how patients were treated.

The history of Bedlam (the popular name for England’s Bethlem Royal Hospital) was a rare high point, as well as how Freud came to his theory of infant sexuality. There are some nice quotes as well to introduce the chapters.

This was one of Roy Porter’s last books before his tragic early death in 2002 at the age of 55 from a heart attack while exercising. I hope his other ones were better than this one.

If you’re just not depressed enough and/or are looking for yet another reason to hate Adolf Hitler, check out Hitler’s Niece: A Novel by Ron Hansen (Harper; 2000.)  This is a biographical novel in the tradition of Irving Stone (best known for his Van Gogh novel Lust for Life).  The author does fudge history a little bit but lists all of these deviations in the book’s Afterward.

Why am I including a book on Hitler in a mental health blog?  Well, three reasons:

  1. A book on Hitler is a book about a psychopath
  2. People struggling with the decision to commit suicide often dwell on the problem of evil.  The big problem being — how come these evil fucks get away with being evil fucks?  Yes, Hitler committed suicide but he reached the top of his profession and enjoyed the fruits of success long before Hitler and his crew had to go to the Bunker.
  3. It’s my blog — I’ll do what I damn well like.

The book centers on the relationship between Hitler and his niece Angelika “Geli” Raubal.  It is a piece of fiction but if even half of what Hansen wrote about was true, that’s still a pretty grim half.  Geli was found shot to death on September 18, 1931.  Although officials at the time ruled it a suicide, some evidence points to it being a murder.

This is a truly haunting book that would make Stephen King green with envy.  I am a domestic abuse survivor and so couldn’t help but identify with the Geli character.  My abuser was no Hitler (it was like living with Hannibal Lecter’s dumber younger brother) but he still could have killed me.

Which brings up another question — why do women find psychopathic men attractive?  Granted, a true psychopath is very charming and seems perfectly sane (hey — he’s got high self-esteem)  but eventually their true colors show.  There are probably STILL women who wish they could bang Hitler.  In my case, I didn’t know my guy was psychopathic until I was deeply involved in the relationship.  I also was suffering from untreated mental illness, which I guess is a reasonable excuse.  Still, I hope I never fall for another psycho.

Hitler wound up with a lot of kinky fan mail but he also was able to seduce an entire nation.  There have been many psycho leaders before Hitler and many after Hitler  And we all know that will happen again sometime in the near future.  People just like to be abused, I guess.

I recently read Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants (Random House; 2001).  I just read the first book in the series (the one that became a movie) but I’m not sure I’m going to bother with the rest of the series.  Although it was a good book, it’s kinda like science fiction to me.  Four childhood friends sticking together through thick and thin?  Not in my world.

I’ve noticed that a lot of books and movies feature ridiculously strong friendships.  These friends do incredibly brave and unrealistic things like bailing each other out jail, putting up with each other’s tantrums and regularly staying in contact with each other.

In all of my 43 years, I’ve never had such a friend who wasn’t closely related to me (and therefore, didn’t have an option.)  And there are things I would never talk about with my close relatives (because i don’t really have an option, either.)  It can be a bit depressing for me to get lost in a book about a great friendship and realize that I have never experienced what these fictional characters have.

Quite frankly, once you become homeless (like myself) no one want to know you.  I’ve had some “friends” from college contact me in the last 6 years since I became homed and once they heard that I used to be homeless I’d never hear from them again.  Can’t say I entirely blame them.  It’s a dangerous world out there.  Who wants to let a potential crazy homeless person into his or her life?

So, if you don’t have a friendship like those portrayed in books, don’t worry about it.  The stuff of great fiction doesn’t exactly work in real life.

Usually when I do these little book reports for this blog, it’s often to warn you not to read the book. I’m happy to report that this is not the case with The Psychopath Test: A Journey Through the Madness Industry by Jon Ronson (best known for his bestseller The Men Who Stare at Goats.)

Are you a psychopath? How do you know? Actually if you wonder if you might be a psychopath, the chances are very high that you are not a psychopath. There is a test given to suspected psychopaths, where a mental health expert sees how you score on 20 questions known as the Hare psychopathy test.

The book is delightfully quirky with a strong narrative voice. For example, Ronson buys a copy of the DSM-IV and promptly diagnoses himself with twelve mental illnesses. It also shows his misadventures with Scientologists, who are adamantly opposed to psychology or psychiatry.

The book also looks at the history of treating psychopaths and how this history blends into everyday problems of dealing with psychopaths, which are estimated to make up about 1% of the world’s population. Most psychopaths aren’t locked up. They can still hold down jobs and often excel at their jobs. Ronson looks at one CEO multi-millionaire who made his fortune firing people and closing down manufacturing plants.

One of the least understood mental illnesses is schizophrenia.  100 years ago, getting schizophrenia was akin to getting inoperable cancer.  There were no treatments other than being shut up in an institute and drastic treatments like insulin shock therapy.

Yet somehow American mathematician John Forbes Nash Jr. came back from the brink to win the Nobel Prize in Economics.  Sylvia Nasar presents a pretty exhaustive biography of Nash’s remarkable life in her bestselling biography A Beautiful Mind (Simon & Schuster; 1994.)

I’ve never seen the popular movie of the same name based on this book, but my Mom tells me that it was a great film.  Maybe one day I’ll get around to seeing it.

This book is a hard slog in places, especially where it details mathematical theories and game theories.  But I recommend it.  Although not the main focus of the book, it does chronicle the remarkable love story of Nash and his wife Alicia, who divorced him and yet took care of him even after the divorce.

Nash’s recovery was spontaneous and the reader is left to draw his or her own conclusions as to just what contributed to Nash’s recovery.  Nash is still alive and winning awards at the venerable age of 84.

At first, a book with the imposing title of The Lobotomist: A Maverick Medical Genius and His Tragic Quest to Rid the World of Mental Illness (Wiley; 2005) seems an odd choice for me to read, since I have major depression and PSTD.  But I highly recommend this book for anyone suffering from mental illness because it shows you that if you think your treatment is bad now, it can’t be as bad as a transorbital lobotomy (also known as the ice pick lobotomy.)

Award-winning medical journalist Jack El-Hai shows considerable finesse in this biography of Walter Jackson Freeman, MD, the Philadelphia-born doctor who pioneered and championed two forms of lobotomy surgeries — the prefrontal lobotomy (where you drill through the skull to remove brain tissue) and the transorbital lobotomy (too gross to explain.)  Freeman was not a trained or certified surgeon, yet he performed thousands of lobotomies — sometimes in his office, sometimes on children (like the boy pictured here.)

The lobotomy was based on the leucotomy, a brain surgery pioneered by Nobel Prize Portuguese surgeon and politician, Antonio Egas MonitzFreeman thought he could do better, first coming up with the prefrontal lobotomy with neurosurgeon James Watts (known as the Freeman-Watts Standard Procedure) and then the transorbital lobotomy which didn’t need Watts.

This can be a truly horrifying book at times, but those who like Stephen King books will think this is child’s play.  I’d like to write more about the details in this book, but I don’t want to give them away to anyone interested in reading it.  A PBS documentary based on the book came out in 2006 or so, but I haven’t seen it.