By Charles Barber University of Nebraska Press, 2005 Review by Sue Bond, M.A. on Jan 7th 2006
"Over the last twenty years, the most significant thing I
have learned is this: if you slam doors now, you're less likely to kill
This quotation from the end of Charles Barber's memoir resonates strongly
with the central story he tells, that of Henry Court, Barber's friend who
killed himself when he was twenty-one after a prolonged period of psychotic and
depressive illness. That was in 1983, and Barber wrote the book after recurrent
dreams made him realize that he could no longer, after seventeen years, keep
Henry's memory at bay.
To state the obvious, talking and listening are vital keys to approaching
the diagnosis and treatment of mental illness. Henry and his friends, Barber
and Nick, had known each other since childhood, and were all intelligent,
well-read and high-achieving at college. But they were uncomfortable with
talking about their emotional lives, and felt 'no need to discuss, to share'.
This is common, of course, with adolescent boys and young men in particular
(Barber calls it the 'almost universal male adolescent code of silence'), but
the author recognizes, tragically, that some talking might have made a difference
This silence went right through Henry's bizarre behavior: his 'trashings',
when he would throw all of his possessions against his dormitory room wall and laugh
manically each time an object shattered; his excessive drinking; his
drug-taking, including LSD. Henry did not like questions about his feelings,
and preferred to take his friend out on his motorbike, driving straight out of
his bedroom into the outdoors.
It is ironic that the author also states at the end of his book that
ideas without action mean nothing, and yet it was action without meaningful
talk that deepened their problems.
The author writes frankly and in detail about his own mental illness,
the obsessions that filled his mind in every waking moment, and how they
started when he was very young. He writes with great precision and color about
the way in which words repeated and repeated and repeated in his mind, and
about how he had to fight the strong desire to kill people that also invaded
He is so frank that he can admit to us that 'OCD and Henry saved
me from being ordinary', while also recognizing the horror behind it. Without
the pain and struggle he encountered, his life could have been as smooth and
uncomplicated and unrewarding as blancmange. Without the knowledge and
experience he gained, he would not have entered the vocation he did, which was
working with the mentally ill and homeless. He writes with compassion, humor
and spirit about the men he cares for in the shelters, so that they are vividly
alive, real people.
There are assertions that bothered me in the book, but by the end,
I understood why he rebelled so fiercely against the intellectualism of his
parents and the universities, and the academic life. He felt a strong
resentment against the expectations that were placed upon him, that they took
away the choices he should have had as to what he would do with his life.
He puts experience above book-learning in dealing with his patients,
but I notice that constant reading was still one of the activities that made
life worth living for him. He makes frequent references to literature throughout
the book, and a particular note about a Hitchcock film that had a profound
effect upon his mental state: the director's ability to 'murder and create'
made him feel 'cleansed and renewed'.
He writes a little too glowingly about the handicapped men he
cared for in a group home, in the years after Henry's death. There are wonderfully
piquant descriptions of them, warm and humorous, but he almost wants us to
believe that he would prefer to be like them, with no need for speech, just
purely physical beings. I didn't believe it for a moment. However, I
understand, once again, that this was what he needed at that stage in his life.
One other aspect of this memoir that still troubles me is the author's
description of Joyce Court, Henry's mother. To me she reads as a supremely
tragic figure, mired in alcoholism and grief, but once clever and successful. I
can't shake off Barber's dismissive treatment of her, even when he writes that
he must banish the suicidal from his life. It seems a little cruel.
Despite this jarring point, Charles Barber has written a
passionate and honest book about those with mental illness. He combines the personal
and the political quite subtly. It is also original, which is something to be