Strangers to Ourselves
Unsettled Minds and the Stories That Make Us
One of the top ten books of the year at The New York Times Book Review, The Wall Street Journal, Vulture/New York magazine
A best book of the year at Los Angeles Times, Time, NPR, The Washington Post, Bookforum, The New Yorker, Vogue, Kirkus
The acclaimed, award-winning New Yorker writer Rachel Aviv offers a groundbreaking exploration of mental illness and the mind, and illuminates the startling connections between diagnosis and identity.
Strangers to Ourselves poses fundamental questions about how we understand ourselves in periods of crisis and distress. Drawing on deep, original reporting as well as unpublished journals and memoirs, Rachel Aviv writes about people who have come up against the limits of psychiatric explanations for who they are. She follows an Indian woman celebrated as a saint who lives in healing temples in Kerala; an incarcerated mother vying for her children’s forgiveness after recovering from psychosis; a man who devotes his life to seeking revenge upon his psychoanalysts; and an affluent young woman who, after a decade of defining herself through her diagnosis, decides to go off her meds because she doesn’t know who she is without them. Animated by a profound sense of empathy, Aviv’s gripping exploration is refracted through her own account of living in a hospital ward at the age of six and meeting a fellow patient with whom her life runs parallel—until it no longer does.
Aviv asks how the stories we tell about mental disorders shape their course in our lives—and our identities, too. Challenging the way we understand and talk about illness, her account is a testament to the porousness and resilience of the mind.
New Yorker staff writer Aviv debuts with a collection of thought-provoking journalistic profiles of people with mental illness. From a depressed self-aggrandizing physician to a mother who murders one of her twins during a mental health episode to a Harvard-educated debutante with bipolar disorder, Aviv details how six individuals have navigated the boundaries of scientific understandings of mental illness and developed self-understanding through psychiatric treatment. The author includes her own story: She was diagnosed with anorexia at age six and committed to a hospital, where she encountered the power of diagnoses to shape one's self-conception: "There are stories that save us, and stories that trap us, and in the midst of an illness it can be very hard to know which is which." Aviv uses interviews, subjects' journals, and the writings of such figures as Sigmund Freud and psychiatrist Roland Kuhn to study how illness affects how one sees oneself. For example, the journals of Aviv's subject Bapu, an Indian woman with schizophrenia, pay little heed to her diagnosis and treat her connection with the Hindu god Krishna as real. Aviv's considerable storytelling abilities are on full display here as she renders compassionate and nuanced portraits of individuals wrestling to gain a coherent sense of identity from the limited lexicon of psychiatry. This eye-opening examination makes for a valuable addition to modern discourse around mental illness.