Recommendation and Regret

I couldn’t sleep last night and it was all Lowboy’s fault.

I was reading the novel Lowboy by John Wray. Click here for its review in the New York Times.

The book is about a 16-year old boy with schizophrenia on the run in the New York subway system. It’s a fantastic read – fast-paced yet poetic, and short enough to consume in a few days.

One of the interesting footnotes about this book is that the author wrote most of it on the NY subway line while listening to heavy metal guitar. Another is that he did a unique (albeit slightly awkward) reading from the book to other passengers on the train. Here’s a great interview of the author in a recent NPR podcast.

So that was my recommendation. Now for the regret.

The driving force of the novel is the threat of violence. The main character of the novel, Will Heller (a.k.a. Lowboy), has nearly killed someone before, has attacked others, and is now unmedicated and on the loose in public. I enjoyed the book immensely, but I couldn’t help feeling sad that it reinforced the public misconception that people with schizophrenia are violent.

This is not a criticism of the book; literature isn’t and shouldn’t be a public service announcement. A doctor in the novel even mentions that most patients with schizophrenia aren’t violent. Still, the young patient in this story is transformed into a terrifying figure.

Groups like NAMI and NIMH need to continue educating people about mental illness. The public needs to know that most people with schizophrenia aren’t violent and most violent people don’t have schizophrenia.

If patients are going to find treatment and recover, they’ll need the support of people in their lives. They will need our kindness, not our fear.

Where’s My Real Wife?

I recently read the novel Atmospheric Disturbances, written by Rivka Galchen (a trained psychiatrist). It begins when the main character wakes to find that his wife is a fraud. She looks exactly like his wife and shares her voice and mannerisms, but there’s no question that the woman in his house is an impostor.

Although the term’s never used, the main character is suffering from Capgras Syndrome. Capgras is one of those rare neurological conditions that sounds like science fiction to those of us who are more or less neurologically intact. It’s perhaps one of few syndromes intriguing enough to fuel an entire novel. (Two, in fact; it was the basis for the novel The Echomaker as well.)

One theory is that Capgras happens when regions of the brain linked to emotion are damaged or disconnected from visual/face recognition areas. That’s oversimplified, but the point is that our emotions are inextricably woven into our perceptions of other people. The feeling of love for a spouse or parent or sibling or child is so integral to our experience of that person that in its absence, despite every scrap of evidence to the contrary, we can’t believe the person is the same. I can’t help but find this both facinating and surprisingly romantic.

Atmospheric Disturbances wasn’t my favorite read overall, but I admire the creative risks it took. It lived up to the term “novel.” For one, Galchen included her actual father as a prominent character and his research in meteorology as a motif throughout the book. There’s even a family photo; she was a cute kid.

Here’s a brief interview with the author about the book and her interest in the topic:

%d bloggers like this: