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Related Topics
Stranger Than FictionReview - Stranger Than Fiction
When Our Minds Betray Us
by Marc D. Feldman & Jacqueline M. Feldman,
American Psychiatric Press, 1998
Review by Jerome Young
Nov 14th 2000 (Volume 4, Issue 46)

The Feldmans have written a useful book targeted at a general (American) audience. The express purpose of the book is to educate the public about the ubiquity of mental illness and help them to realize that there are a variety of causes leading to the skewed view of reality of the mentally ill. They also aimed to show that with proper psychiatric attention many of these people can be helped back to reality. Through a wide variety of real-life cases drawn from their vast clinical experience, the authors do exactly what they set out to do: to show that life is, indeed, stranger than fiction. By relying on the stories of real people with real troubles, they show that the variety and particular manifestations of mental illnesses are as varied as the people who suffer from them. The goal of introducing the cast of characters and stories drawn from their clinical experiences is to show that the symptoms of mental illness, strange though they may be, are all too real to the people experiencing them. The larger goal is to give the general reading audience a better understanding of the complex nature of the causes of mental illness in order to dispel the largely pejorative aura surrounding mental illness. In the process of relating these stories they also show how modern psychiatry has a battery of different methods to treat mental illness and enable people to lead normal lives.

While the text is spiced liberally with clinical case studies, this work is not just another casebook on abnormal psychology. Since this book is written for a general audience, there is a warmth and friendliness to the writing that would give the book a wider appeal than a typical casebook. Furthermore, the book is organized around the philosophically interesting thesis that a useful, albeit metaphorical, way to think of mental illness is as a "lie of the mind". They define a lie of the mind as "a condition in which a person's thinking unintentionally becomes distorted". This metaphor offers us an intriguing way to conceptualize the phenomenon of mental illness and works fairly well to capture the often times paradoxical nature of such illnesses. However, since the authors are concerned in part with the stigma associated with mental illness, I'm not convinced that thinking of mental illness as a "lie of the mind" will help to overcome the negative impressions many people have of mental illness. In the Introduction, the authors explain that they are using the word "lie" in a special way but, because the word "lie" has its own pejorative connotations, the use of this metaphor may be of limited value to the book's targeted audience.

Over the last couple of decades there have been many books written by psychiatrists aimed to take readers into the day-to-day life of psychiatry, but this book distinguishes itself from the others by providing important information gauged to help people make informed decisions about psychotherapeutic services. Even though the authors seemed to favor using drug therapy, as is the wont of modern psychiatry, we could see that in their clinical practices they were sensitive to the fact that each case presents different problems and that the treatment has to be catered to each case individually. Through their struggles to bring patients back to reality they employed a wide array of techniques which were sometimes successful and sometimes not. Their honesty about the successes and failures of their own practices extended also to an honesty about psychiatry in general. Certain groups of psychotherapists, for instance, may not like this book because of the critical view the authors take toward some of the recent "popular" mental illnesses and their treatment. Their critique of the recovered memory movement, for example, is quite scathing and may annoy those in the profession who make a living helping people to recover long forgotten "memories" of childhood abuse. Even though some professionals may not like this book, I think their critique of the abuses of psychiatry as a profession is a balanced one and, for this reason, think lay people would benefit from their sage council.

This book offers much insight into the problems of mental illness and is certainly a valuable resource for the general public. As a philosopher I also found this book valuable because of the authors' attempt to blend their broad clinical experience with an intriguing philosophical take on the nature of mental illness. One of the potential drawbacks of this book, however, is that it is written with an American audience in mind. Many of the cases and examples used to illustrate "lies of the mind" are drawn from American culture so some of this may be lost on a larger worldwide audience. Some of the illnesses they discuss (such as False Memory Syndrome) seem to be culturally specific to America, or perhaps the West, and do not appear, for example, in Asia (where I'm stationed). Nevertheless, I think residents, clinicians, therapists, philosophers and especially the lay public would find much of value in the strange, but true, stories the authors discuss in this book.

Jerome is a foreign lecturer at Keio University SFC (Japan) and a post-graduate student in the Philosophy and Ethics of Mental Health Programme at the University of Warwick (England).


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