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Book Review: The Double Bind by Chris Bohjalian

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If I had to give this book some sort of star rating out of five, I'd give it five and a half! Not only did it satisfy everything I look for when buying a book, but it added a great jacket illustration as well. My first thought was, "is she going quickly or am I not seeing this clearly?" It's a blurred image of a young woman pedaling her bicycle, and it's a perfect image for the story within and how our everyday perceptions can, and usually are blurred.

This is a tale of compassion, compulsion and obsession — the lines between wealth and poverty strongly defined à la Fitzgerald. At times, it is a gut-wrenching story of homelessness and the mentally ill. The knocking down of assumptions previously held.

The Double Bind makes clear to the reader that things aren't all black and white, but truth is often the shade of gray. Laurel, the heroine, says, "You understood a person better in black and white." But as she quickly learns, things are not black and white at all! I applaud how Bohjalian cuts smoothly across the two, linking them and giving the reader a truer picture of lives as he leads us to explore the human psyche and how it fights to survive by any means.

Every character in this tale is truly memorable. It begins with a young college sophomore, Laurel Estabrook, being attacked while cycling the rural roads of Vermont. Prior to the attack, Laurel was an outgoing young woman, but not surprising, the attack leaves her withdrawn and introspective.

As she buries herself in her photography, she visits a homeless shelter and befriends Bobbie Crocker; a mentally ill resident there who tells her he, too, was once a great photographer and has many photographs hidden away in a box. When Bobbie dies, Laurel gets possession of the box and discovers Bobbie was not lying. The box is filled with photos of legends such as Chuck Berry and Eartha Kitt, to name just a few.

I love Bohjalian's use of black and white photos at the beginning of many of the chapters. He has chosen less than a dozen, and intersperses them throughout the book with no intent to tie them to the story, but perhaps only to jar the reader back to another plane once more.

The photos are in fact the work of a once-homeless, real-life photographer, Bob 'Soupy' Campbell, and as you study them, you ask yourself how a man of this talent could ever end up homeless and mentally ill. It's the best question you can ask yourself, proving that these people aren't oddities. They haven't chosen this life, but are victims of circumstance, and it reminds us that it can happen to any of us.

Double bind is a medical term having to do with children receiving mixed or contradictory messages from their parents leading to a dysfunctional family situation. Sometimes it can occur outside the immediate family as well, leading to a major mental breakdown. I believe what Chris Bohjalian intended was not to write a story for entertainment, but also to educate the reader. He was attempting to show us all what can so easily happen, and to give compassion where needed. He has embedded the message in a wonderfully written story, rich with emotion.

You may feel once you've reached the last page, you want to go back to page one and begin again. I say this not because it's a bad story, but because it's that good; from the strangely lilting, almost poetic prologue, to the twisted ending which leaves you compelled to go back and absorb the story again. Definitely read it at least once.

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  • Carolyn Price

    I didn’t find this book as compelling as I had “Midwives” but I was managing to stay with it until page 200 when Bohjalain brought out the outdated and and completely discredited “double bind” theory as a cause for schizophrenia. Psychiatrists in the 1950’s posited many theories like this without doing any actual research. It’s from these false ideas that the cliche that bad mothers cause all mental illness got started. It was at about this same time that the theory that unloving mothers caused autism was perpetuated.

    Check the NAMI, NIMH or schizophrenia main site and you’ll find that the disease is caused by virus and, occasionally, head injury or street drugs. It’s a neurological disease like it’s opposite Parkinsons. It’s a shame that this book is going to bring back a false stigma that was on it’s way out.

  • Carolyn;
    I’m not sure you can say it’s an outdated or discredited theory, since Schizophrenia.com has just recently discussed this & feels that it is in fact, some of each. My feelings are that it very likely is.

    Experts now agree that schizophrenia develops as a result of interplay between biological predisposition (for example, inheriting certain genes) and the kind of environment a person is exposed to. These lines of research are converging: brain development disruption is now known to be the result of genetic predisposition and environmental stressors early in development (during pregnancy or early childhood), leading to subtle alterations in the brain that make a person susceptible to developing schizophrenia. Environmental factors later in life (during early childhood and adolescence) can either damage the brain further and thereby increase the risk of schizophrenia, or lessen the expression of genetic or neurodevelopmental defects and decrease the risk of schizophrenia.

    So taking into consideration each individual & how they react to situations in their lives, (bad parenting & the like) coupled with their genetic make-up, I think you have to agree would make the most sense?