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Ned Zeman was formerly a Senior Editor and is now a Contributing Editor at Vanity Fair magazine, having written previously for GQ, Sports Illustrated, Outside, and Newsweek. His considerable writing chops are on display in The Rules of the Tunnel, an in-your-face, bold, and frequently humorous memoir of his struggles with mood disorder, amnesia, and general dysfunction. At age 32, successful, and building a career, Zeman was beset with overwhelming anxiety, depression, and a world falling in around him. His small cadre of close friends supported him as best they could but ultimately he required professional attention, which he got from psychiatrists who inevitably put him on a cornucopia of psychotropic drugs, later leading to voluntary hospitalizations and a course of electroconvulsive therapy (ECT). Zeman was never satisfied with his many diagnoses, among them major depression, OCD, bipolar disorder, social anxiety disorder, and avoidant personality disorder. He also never truly finds relief but instead achieves a kind of acceptance and rapprochement, his "rules of the tunnel" that he summarizes at book's end: "Resistance is futile. Adapt or die. The future is yours."
Zeman writes in a second-person voice as in, "You lay awake all night, amid unpacked boxes and duffels, reading the boss's copy of The Perfect Storm." This perspective can be off-putting, because it gives the impression of the author under a microscope—but perhaps that is what he had in mind. His writing style is difficult to pin down, at times a staccato, machine-gun delivery reminiscent of James Elroy but simultaneously, a loopy, tangential, post-modernistic narrative form found with David Foster Wallace. Of note, Zeman pays homage to Wallace several times in the book, another writer who suffered from depression and took his life in 2009.
Zeman seems to find solace with several people he profiled in his magazine writing and died as a result of their eccentric pursuits, notably penguin photographer Bruno Zehnder, who perished in Antarctica, and self-proclaimed savior of Alaskan grizzly bears, Timothy Treadwell. It is not a leap to conclude that these and a few other odd and troubled souls curiously brought comfort to Zeman in his otherwise confused and disordered life. Another chief figure in the book is the author's late father, whom Zeman clearly adored and respected. However in writing about his friends, co-workers, and superiors, the author often times comes across as a not-so-likeable person, hypercritical, and prone to character assassination, duplicity, and manipulation, in part the consequence of his condition but maybe something deeper and more sinister. Sorting it all out is not easy but I give kudos to Zeman for facing his demons, trying to right the course, and in doing so, producing a book that will educate readers about mental illness and the value of persevering when you think everything is stacked against you.
© 2012 James K. Luiselli
James K. Luiselli, Ed.D., ABPP, BCBA-D is a psychologist affiliated with May Institute and a private-practice clinician. Among his publications are 8 books and more than 240 book chapters and journal articles. He reviews books for The New England Psychologist.