Stephen Weiner 8/15/2005
Songs from the Black Chair
by Charles Barber
University of Nebraska Press (American Lives Series),
Lincoln and London, 2005
How does a product of the elite Andover prep school and Harvard University come to have a job listening to hundreds, maybe thousands, of psychotic or near-psychotic homeless men at Bellevue shelter, affiliated with New York City's famous (or infamous) Bellevue psychiatric hospital?
In the case of Charlie Barber, the path from Harvard to Bellevue was not undertaken lightly, or with any shred of condescension. You see, Charlie (with whom i have e-corresponded, both before and after the book was published) suffered terribly with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) for years, definitively starting his freshman year at Harvard but with earlier overtones and undertones of distress, which he had in common with adolescent friends "Nick" and "Henry" (pseudonyms are used).
Henry was a suicide, a "wild 'n' crazy" kind of guy in the sense in which people use the term half-jokingly. But the wildness and craziness became over years all too serious, and the book opens with Henry's suicide (as Charlie reconstructs and imagines it) by pills and auto exhaust, the method by which my sister, also, killed herself. Charlie spends years haunted by the suicide, which raises unanswerable questions for him. Henry's suicide was in 1983; my sister's was in 1982. Nick, at the time the book ends, is a certified adult underachiever, living with his parents in middle age.
So i feel, after reading Charlie Barber's book, that he and i have major experiences in common. I felt that way, even before the book was published, just by corresponding with him. At one time we discussed a project, first proposed by an Ivy League undergraduate woman, for a study or series of first person accounts of students from elite colleges who have struggled with mental illness. For myself, who went from graduating from Stanford University in 1973 to being the only white client in the West Philadelphia welfare office in 1976, the issue has at times been burning.
At one crucial point in his memoir, Charlie Barber just stops and says something like this: "I may as well just come out and say it--i started thinking about killing people." He was, of course, horrified by the thought. It's not that he was a brutal kind of person who would want to kill people. He developed checking rituals in which he would look around to make sure he hadn't killed anyone.
These kinds of obsessive thoughts, and compulsive rituals to deal with the unbearable anxiety provoked by the thoughts, are what give obsessive-compulsive disorder its name. This was in his freshman year at Harvard, and the torment of his OCD so disabled him that it knocked him off the conventional successful student/career path for years. He was occupationally disabled but also alienated from the expectations of his academic family. Eventually, he took a job as a care worker for developmentally disabled adolescents. This helped, in a real way, prepare him to work with the homeless mentally ill.
At this point, I, Stephen Weiner, also might just as well come out and say it: in 1976, in West Philadelphia, living in a communal house, i developed the terror that i had killed, or would kill, people in my sleep. I, like Charlie Barber, developed a checking ritual: i would knock on my housemates' room doors as early in the morning as was socially acceptable, and, under the pretext of looking for something or asking them an important question, check to see that they were still alive! This went on for months, years really. I have been diagnosed not only with OCD but also with paranoid schizophrenia, shizoaffective disorder (a combination of schizophrenia and mood disorder) and schizoid personality. This is because, unlike Charlie, i have also experienced strong feelings of derealization/solipsism (the feeling/belief that nothing and no one exists except me), and major episodes of magical thinking, like believing i caused earthquakes by eating Pepperidge Farms turnovers or resting my hand on my girlfriend's vagina. But i can say that nothing, absolutely nothing, robs you of your self-confidence and self-esteem like the obsession/delusion that you are inadvertently evil.
Fortunately, for Charlie Barber, his self-confidence gradually returned with his time as a child care worker and rendered him eminently suitable for a job as an intake worker with the mentally ill homeless guys. He was prepared to empathize, and not judge, in a way that few "normal" people would be able to do. He was also able to develop a relationship with a woman, Laura, and have a child with her. I have not been able to sustain sexual/romantic relationships because of my derealizing fear that the universe will disappear upon ejaculation.
Charlie Barber has made a more complete recovery from mental illness than i have. I admire him tremendously. He says that Prozac reduced his symptoms, his terrors, by 50 to 80 percent. I would say that medication, principally antipsychotic medication, has helped me but not to that extent.
Songs from the Black Chair is a great book for people who have suffered mental illness themselves, their families and friends, and the public at large. The mentally ill must tell our stories if anything is to change in social/cultural attitudes. Charlie Barber has made a tremendously important contribution.
If you would like to borrow this or any other books from the new Suspicious Humanist Library, please contact me by telephone at 541-488-4280 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Copyediting by Susanne Petermann and Rachael Resch.