Broadly, psychology is concerned with understanding and influencing behavior. The specializations of psychiatry and psychotherapy narrow their concern to help us control behaviors that threaten our well-being. Psychiatry uses surgical and chemical interventions to rebalance our behaviors; psychotherapy seeks to illuminate those behaviors and nurture self-regulation. Historians of psychology know that both disciplines are subject to faddish devotion to silver-bullet prescriptions that are deemed, ultimately, to harm the public. This is supported by recent studies that reveal the irrelevance of method: healing is found not in the confines of the patient’s cranium but in the nurturing embrace of the therapeutic relationship.
Kay Redfield Jamison, in “Fires in the Dark,” seeks to illuminate the character of great psychological healers. As therapist, patient, and teacher, she approaches the question from diverse perspectives. In her conclusion, however, those threads are left dangling.
Perhaps that is only to be expected, given the majesty of the program she undertakes. It starts in the desperation of World War I, where the prodigality of industrial warfare broke the belief that nations could profit by spending the blood of their sons on foreign battlefields. Painting, in her opening chapters, the gruesome medical realities, Jamison orients us to the pressures that turned heroes into psychological invalids and pacifists.
Confronting this apocalypse, healers rallied to the service of their brothers. Jamison chooses William Halse Rivers Rivers as her avatar, a man of prodigious intellectual achievement: scientist, author, teacher, and heir to English military glory – but also sufferer from melancholy and exhaustion relieved most effectively by maritime voyaging to exotic research locales.
In elaborating Rivers’ art, Jamison turns to the reflections of Siegfried Sassoon. First a hero of the trenches, then pacifist rescued from execution by a diagnosis of nervous collapse, Sassoon documented the horrors of war in his poetry and memorialized Rivers’ life. In their interaction, we witness the foundations of cultural affinity, curiosity, and duty at work in the therapeutic process. In Sassoon, specifically, we also are confronted with the question of how sane people navigate insane societies, a theme that presages the final chapter describing the entombment of the Unknown Soldier as a ritual that helped to close England’s self-inflicted wound, thus leaving it vulnerable to repetition in World War II.
As a counter-current, Jamison describes her own search for wisdom and healing. Her reflections are interspersed with the narrative, first as conclusions drawn from professional history, but becoming progressively more personal as she documents her adult struggle with bipolar disorder. In the middle section of the book, Jamison ventures to ancient Greece, exploring the principles of integrative healing and myth, introducing themes that inform map-mapping as a therapeutic strategy. Rather than elaborating this practice in depth, however, Jamison reflects on the influence of mythic story-telling (LeGuin’s Earthsea, Stevenson’s Treasure Island, and Mary Poppins) in nurturing moral and intellectual autonomy in youthful readers. The counter-current ends with early childhood memories of navigating the treacherous waters of the Potomac Bay – at once dangerous and profligately alive – a metaphor that leaves me wondering whether Jamison sees mental disorientation as an essential fertilizer for a fulfilled life.
Throughout, Jamison’s writing and perspectives are tender and deeply humane, illuminating the challenges of healing in our disjointed age to leave me humbled and mournful. Unfortunately, her search for the elements essential to the therapist’s character runs aground, hinted at only in the testimony of students and patients as to being absorbed within mental clarity and purpose.
In her case, Jamison’s brush with greatness of soul was an experience in Esalen of “falling into the stars.” Running to her academic advisor, she was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and put on lithium to suppress recurrences. Contrast this with Eastern mysticism, which would recognize such an experience as “enlightenment” that presaged growth, or with the power of Rivers’ presence forged from the struggle to unify both integrative (anthropological) and reductionist (neurophysiological) perspectives on the human condition, or with the traditions of ancient Greece where Asclepius was placed in the heavens by Zeus as a guide to future healers.
If Jamison reaches a demoralizing cul-de-sac in her quest, I would hazard that it is because modern psychology has beaten the soul out of her.