Falling Into the Fire
In recent years there has been a plethora of books about psychiatry and psychology by seasoned practitioners, including the magnificent The Examined Life by Stephen Grosz in Britain and, closer to home, Music and Madness by Dr Ivor Browne and Going Mad by the late Dr. Michael Corry and Dr. Aine Tubridy, two remarkable and original practitioners who – partners at work and at home – died within a short time of each other.
Grosz, a psychoanalyst, spent twenty fiver years uncovering the hidden feelings and motivations behind the baffling behaviour of his patients. Browne and Corry and Tubridy naturally had a different approach to acute mental disorder, almost placing consciousness and emotions at the heart of psychological distress.
A book which will become a notable addition to the canon is Falling Into the Fire by Christine Montross, sub-titled, ‘A Psychiatrist’s Encounters with the Mind in Crisis’. The author is being hailed as the next Oliver Sacks and though only time will tell, she can certainly write.
Unlike Grosz who shared the stories of over 30 patients, Montross is content to analyse in greater detail the harrowing tales of five patients with conditions so severe that they make the possibility of a defining epithet redundant, such as the young woman who ingests light bulbs, zippers and a box of nails.
Where Montross echoes the approach of Sacks is the realisation that the genius of the human brain is its continual creation of a sense of self, which persists even in the face of a terrible neurological disease, such as in the case of Eddie, in Fifty Thousand Dollar Skin, who spent $50,000 on 25 skin procedures to improve his appearance, spending hours scanning his face in the mirror.
Montross is a patient prober of the human condition, the mind and its mysteries, an Assistant Professor of Psychiatry at Brown University in America, who rules nothing in and nothing out, and whose expertise in her field stems from a conviction that the intersection between mind and body are deeply complex, and yet admits that modern psychiatry is not always sure if it is right when a mind careens and lists.
‘The body mystifies. The mind more so. Witnessing their complex intersections – and the unbidden ways in which the two can catastrophically fray – can unmoor us,’ writes Montross. And yet, like Grosz, like Corry and Tubridy, like Browne, Christine Montross walks with her patients on her journey.