Welcome to my Country.
In Welcome to My Country, Lauren Slater, a writer and psychologist, ventures to the place where this world meets that other one, the one where my sister lives. Opening this book, I felt great trepidation: Did I really want to do this? But so compelling is Slater's vision, so idiosyncratic is her approach, that I couldn't help but read on, enthralled. This is a beautiful book. I can't say that it brought me peace, because there are no happy endings here, but it showed me a more stringent kind of comfort, an active engagement with people whose world is constantly melting.
Slater has worked as a psychologist in an East Boston residence for chronic schizophrenics; she also sees patients with less exotic problems--eating disorders, depression, borderline personalities. Welcome to My Country is made up of six essays, each of which takes up a different illness, a different case or set of cases. The mode is simultaneously belletristic, exploratory and confessional. While Slater has carefully camouflaged her patients with composite portraits and pseudonyms, she herself remains stubbornly raw, bungee-jumping directly into her own countertransference, her own history of despair. That is her method, as a psychologist, a writer and a human being. As she explains it:
"Psychiatry and psychology, while paying homage to the significance of empathy and connection, have done little in the way of really revealing themselves and their practitioners, and connection is at least in part based on revelation, the stripping off of the mask."
Or, as she also puts it, "I believe in a place, somewhere in the air, where my self and your self might meet, merging in what we might learn to call, at least for a moment, love."
While the language here is airily lyrical, the actual task Slater sets herself is rock-hard. The people she works with are not easy to love, they often exhibit little capacity for loving back and the degree of their various disturbances touches the outer limits of what human interaction can affect. In the title essay, she describes her work as group therapist to six schizophrenic men--one who believes that "fruits none of us can see are exploding all around him"; another, 366 pounds, who claims "constant blow jobs from such diverse females as the Queen of England and Chrissy, the Shih Tzu dog next door." They drool. They rock. More subtly, and more profoundly, they seem barely to recognize one another's existence. What can group therapy possibly mean to a man who thinks he has 700 Chinese wives?
The conventional psychoanalytic wisdom is: not much. Psychologists in Slater's position are supposed to help schizophrenics focus on A.D.L.s--Activities of Daily Living, like bathing and taking your meds. But Slater, in a move born equally of youth, boredom and boldness, decides one day, to hell with it. When Oscar, the 366-pound blow-job king, says that a space-ship has landed on his belly, Slater says to the group, "Why don't we go for a ride in it, then?" And off they go, all the men and Slater gathered around Oscar's enormous stomach, passing albinos with beautiful cunts, girls who live in the sky. A connection is made. Later, when one of the men dies, there is a fragmentary but powerful group mourning, a sort of communal ripple in the wacky surfaces, but it also obliterates that fragile spaceship as the survivors fall father and farther away from one another. Slater, as she often does, fails. She makes the simple and poignant observation that one of the worst things about mental illness is that it is essentially so very lonely, obliging Shih Tzus notwithstanding.
What the schizophrenics, whose illness is so baroque, bring out in Slater is the fundamental desire for connection, and the recognition of the near-impossibility of attaining that desire. Other, less complicated ailments arouse in Slater more complex emotions. With a man whose personality disorder expresses itself in sex and violence and misogyny, Slater finds herself connecting at an odd and unexpected spot: As a recovering anorexic, she too knows what it's like to despise the female body. "Like any real man," she writes, "for years I lived with my fist and not my flesh." With a chronically and incurably depressed woman, Slater falls into a sort of love ("I am so fond of her I sometimes whisper under my breath, `My Marie"') and then falls farther into the realization that some pain cannot be overcome, a realization that upends therapy's narrative of progress. And on her way to begin working with a woman who is institutionalized, diagnosed as borderline, Slater virtually implodes with memories, old rages, terrible anxieties. Once upon a time, she was in that same institution, given that same diagnosis. In this chapter, it becomes clear that Slater's ethic of linking is the only non-schizoid way for her to live: She is both doctor and patient, and she must never forget it.
As a result, Slater casts her patients not as diseases to be cured--many of them can't be cured--but as philosophical questions about what it means to be human, and what these questions mean to her. Now and again, this cloys. In writing about schizophrenia particularly, Slater sometimes gilds the lily ("in some place I cannot get to, comets explode and suns warp into white dwarves"), obscuring an already spectacular forest with tangerine trees and marmalade skies. She favors botanical metaphors and--understandably, given her anorexic background--tropes of the body, but every so often the very lushness has the whiff of the defensive, a filling in of spaces between other people's lives and her own that might otherwise seem unbridgeably vast. When she begins rewriting the incomprehensible jottings of one severely schizophrenic man who is determined to go to college, turning his florid clutter into kindergarten sense ("My mom has black hair, curly. She looks like me"), one feels that perhaps the writer has taken over the psychologist, insisting that language can save even when it clearly can't.
But over and over, I admired Slater. Intimacy is a harrowing risk to take on a hot day in Boston with six men who are perfectly willing to ride into outer space on a hairy belly, especially when you know that the ship is bound to crash. We are reluctant to embark on loves that will never show a return. Slater, however, climbs on. She is very brave.
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|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Feb 26, 1996|
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