We have strange attitudes toward mental illness. Psychological disorders aren't so bad if they give us characters who entertain us on television (the obsessive compulsive title character in Monk), in movies (the multiple phobias and disorders in What About Bob?) or even in classic literary works (the depression of Winnie-the-Pooh's Eeyore and apparent anxiety disorder of Piglet). Yet many are so afraid of the stigma attached to mental illness that they hide its existence in relatives and certainly don't want to talk about it in public.
That's why the written works of those who have suffered mental disorders are important. Charles Barber's memoir, Songs from the Black Chair: A Memoir of Mental Interiors, is a highly laudable addition to the body of firsthand accounts. Not only does it provide us with Barber's story of his illness, it gives us a view of how mental illness affects others and the reluctance to recognize it. In addition, Barber writes in such a fashion that not only does the story grab us, we get a sense of his struggles and conflicts and even some of the demons that plague him.
Barber began suffering symptoms of obsessive compulsive disorder in grade school. It would come to dominate his life, forcing him to drop out of Harvard and later another college. He would not be formally diagnosed until after dropping out of the two colleges. His initial post-high school education came not in the classroom but in his struggles to avoid becoming wholly consumed by a disease that often gained an upper hand.
Still, this is not a tale of an individual who uses sheer will power to overcome staggering odds, become normal and inspire us all. This is a story of the reality of mental illness by someone who was lucky in more ways then one.
While Barber gained some help from techniques he learned during a brief stint with a therapist as a young adult, it was Prozac that was ultimately his breakthrough. Barber recalls with exactitude the moment a sufficient level of it reached his brain as he stood on a street corner in New York City. "I had returned to the world I knew," he writes, "the world before I walked through Harvard Yard wanting to kill people." Even then, Barber immediately acknowledges he was not cured. He still would struggle with his illness, albeit to a lesser extent, and also with the side effects of the Prozac.
Yet Barber is not the only person whose struggle with mental illness is a primary focus here. Equally at center stage is Henry Court, one of Barber's closest friends as a youth and someone apparently equally plagued by mental health issues. Court committed suicide when the two were college-aged, an event that begins the book. Court is almost omnipresent throughout most of the book. In fact, Songs from the Black Chair has the feel of thought-filled personal therapy for Barber as, years later, he finally tries to work through why his friend committed suicide, how it affected him and what he might have done to prevent it. Barber recognizes just how little difference there was between him and Court. The adage "there but for the grace of God go I" has particular resonance here.
Barber begins his own part of the story as he is working as a counselor in two homeless shelters for people with psychotic illnesses in New York City. The black chair of the title is in his office at one of those shelters. It is where his clients sit as he visits with and evaluates their mental condition. Barber relates some of their situations and experiences in a voice almost as knowing as that which tells his and Court's story. Just as Barber's own story informs the voice he gives the client experiences, the reality of his own history yields an important perspective:
I may have some natural abilities in reaching clients, but at the very heart of my rapport was my own experience with obsessive compulsive disorder. While I never revealed the diagnosis to the clients … it informed everything I did with them and allowed me to understand their craziness. I related to their madness — I could understand how someone was rational and intelligent as [a particular client] could be completely taken over by an irrational universe. I had lived in their country.
At the end, though, Barber also recognizes the significant advantage he has over his clients and many others suffering serious psychological problems. "I am familiar with, but not an occupant of, the poisonous terrain they inhabit on a permanent basis," he says.
We, too, are fortunate he was not only a temporary resident but emerged with the courage to use his familiarity to give us a knowing and insightful glimpse of it. Throw in Barber's highly lucid writing and Songs from the Black Chair is not only well worth reading, it is one of the finest memoirs I have read in several years.