When twenty-four-year-old Susannah Cahalan woke up alone in a hospital room, strapped to her bed and unable to move or speak, she had no memory of how she’d gotten there. Days earlier, she had been on the threshold of a new, adult life: at the beginning of her first serious relationship and a promising career at a major New York newspaper. Now she was labeled violent, psychotic, a flight risk. What happened?
Written by a journalist, the reader soon discovers this memoir is a survivor’s tale of brain encephalitis. Divided into three parts, the first establishes Susannah’s life when she came down with the illness and the first appearance of symptoms. The second covers the time period of her illness that she actually can’t remember, and features her own investigative journalism into what happened during that time. The third part covers the first part of her recovery time in the first year or so after she recovers her memory.
The first two thirds of the book are quite strong for different reasons. In the first third, Susannah recalls with such clarity the feeling of is this really happening or am I losing my mind? Specifically, the first thing that happens is she’s sure she has bed bugs but other people (including the exterminator) see no evidence of them. To this day, no one knows if Susannah really had bed bugs or if hallucinating them was a first symptom of her illness.
The second third of the book highlights her skills as an investigative journalist. Since she herself doesn’t remember the worst of her sickness immediately prior to or during her hospitalization, she is able to take an impartial distance to the whole situation and report on how her divorced parents put aside their differences to care for her together, as well as look at how the medical system both cared for her but also almost missed her critical diagnosis. Susannah recognizes how lucky she was to have people on her side advocating with the hospital for her, as well as to be in a city with such high-quality and cutting edge medical care.
The last third where she talks about her years of recovery and her life now was the weakest. The level of insight and analysis found in the first two parts was absent. While Susannah clearly empathizes with those with mental illness, there’s a clear sense that she thinks that all mental illness is just an illness making you look mental and not actually maybe a different way of interacting with the world. A different kind of normal you’re just born with. I think Susannah fails to take into consideration what if she was just born seeing colors more brightly and seeing the walls breathe? What if that was just always her normal? That’s the reality for many with a mental illness, and she kind of just glosses over that and comes down on the it’s all just a physical illness side. I’m more of a believer that it’s ok for there to be different ways to be “normal” and maybe society should stop shoving us all into the same shaped peghole. While it’s true that situations like Susannah’s where your whole personality changes overnight are devastating, that’s not how all mental illness presents, and I think she misses that in her quest to find and diagnose those with a brain inflammation misdiagnosed.
Overall, this is an intensely readable book that leaves you questioning what is truly madness and what is just abnormality? And what makes us who we are? If a person is unable to remember what they are doing, does that mean they’re behaving as themselves authentically or as quite the opposite?
4 out of 5 stars
Source: ARC from publisher in exchange for my honest review
Award-winning journalist Barbara Demick follows the lives of six North Korean citizens over fifteen years–a chaotic period that saw the death of Kim Il-sung, the rise to power of his son Kim Jong-il, and a devastating famine that killed one-fifth of the population. Demick brings to life what it means to be living under the most repressive totalitarian regime today–an Orwellian world that is by choice not connected to the Internet, where displays of affection are punished, informants are rewarded, and an offhand remark can send a person to the gulag for life. Demick takes us deep inside the country, beyond the reach of government censors, and through meticulous and sensitive reporting, we see her subjects fall in love, raise families, nurture ambitions, and struggle for survival. One by one, we witness their profound, life-altering disillusionment with the government and their realization that, rather than providing them with lives of abundance, their country has betrayed them.
One thing the official blurb doesn’t mention is that all 6 of the North Korean escapees Demick interviewed were from the same town of Chongjin. This allowed for her to get multiple perspectives of life in the same town over the course of the 1980s and 1990s. I think this is key because it allowed her to, through their eyes, get a well-rounded sense of what life in Chongjin was like in those decades.
Since I had just read The Girl with Seven Names (review), the extent of the brainwashing North Korean citizens go through their entire lives and how difficult it is to escape (physically and mentally) were not revelatory to me. However, I do think this information is presented quite well by Demick, and there is added value in getting it from 6 different voices, instead of the one in the memoir I started out with.
What struck me the most as new information in this book was actually the famine in North Korea. I hadn’t heard of it, and every single person interviewed by Demick was touched by it. Some more than others. One of the people interviewed was a homeless child during the famine whose growth was permanently stunted by his starvation. For those wondering, the famine was the result of North Korea’s various trade agreements falling through after the fall of the USSR. Humanitarian agencies did send aid, but the North Korean officials intercepted it and either took it or sold it on the black market. Demick speaks at length how this incredibly long-lasting famine impacted not just people’s bodies but their psyche and can lead them to do things they normally wouldn’t for survival.
Her indifference was an acquired survival skill. In order to get through the 1990s alive, one had to suppress any impulse to share food. To avoid going insane, one had to learn to stop caring. (location 2109)
I already knew of the horrible gulags (prison camps) in North Korea but some of the people Demick interviewed had actually been in some of the less severe ones. They spoke of familial bribery and overcrowding as ways they got out. The crimes they commited to be sent to these concentration camp style prison camps, by the way, were things like smuggling goods and escaping to China. One new fact I learned about these prison camps that will haunt me for a while is this:
North Koreans have multiple words for prison in much the same way the Inuit do for snow. (location 2740)
Demick goes more in-depth into what happens to the North Koreans who do manage to escape to South Korea. How well do they acclimate? What are their lives like? She speaks about how many of them are struggling to save money to pay to have human smugglers help sneak their remaining family members out of North Korea. The most heartbreaking of these stories is the mother who escaped to China and had to leave her two children behind with their father who was still loyal to North Korea. Her children are grown now, and she’s still trying to get in contact with them to help them escape. In addition to the difficulties of trying to save remaining family members there’s the fact that capitalism is new to the North Korean escapees, and that South Korea really has a different culture at this point. There’s a lot of struggles to adapt to both that Demick does a good job demonstrating by letting her interviewees speak for themselves.
Demick did a wonderful job interviewing and assembling the stories of these 6 refugees. She both lets their stories speak for themselves and interjects at appropriate times with astute analysis. Recommended to those with an interest in North Korea who want some narrative story with critical analysis.
4 out of 5 stars
An extraordinary insight into life under one of the world’s most ruthless and secretive dictatorships – and the story of one woman’s terrifying struggle to avoid capture/repatriation and guide her family to freedom.
As a child growing up in North Korea, Hyeonseo Lee was one of millions trapped by a secretive and brutal totalitarian regime. Her home on the border with China gave her some exposure to the world beyond the confines of the Hermit Kingdom and, as the famine of the 1990s struck, she began to wonder, question and to realize that she had been brainwashed her entire life. Given the repression, poverty and starvation she witnessed surely her country could not be, as she had been told “the best on the planet”?
Aged seventeen, she decided to escape North Korea. She could not have imagined that it would be twelve years before she was reunited with her family.
She could not return, since rumors of her escape were spreading, and she and her family could incur the punishments of the government authorities – involving imprisonment, torture, and possible public execution. Hyeonseo instead remained in China and rapidly learned Chinese in an effort to adapt and survive. Twelve years and two lifetimes later, she would return to the North Korean border in a daring mission to spirit her mother and brother to South Korea, on one of the most arduous, costly and dangerous journeys imaginable.
I’ll never forget the first time I learned about North Korea’s terrifying dictatorship. I was discussing the horror of the concentration camps with someone as a young teen, and a person nearby said, “You know those still exist. North Korea calls them gulags.” I looked it up, and one of the first things I found was a child’s drawings of life inside. I later found out that we only have stories from the least bad of the gulags. The worst tier no one has escaped from to tell us what happens inside them. It’s really horrifying. Last fall, I decided it was time I learned more about North Korea, so I went looking and this book spoke to me as a place to start. I like first-hand accounts, it’s from the perspective of an ordinary citizen, and I liked the title. I got more than I had bargained for. While this memoir would be good regardless of the writing style because Hyeonseo’s life is just that interesting, her writing is articulate and insightful.
Hyeonseo does a wonderful job writing realistically and yet with empathy about herself as a child who had been fully fooled by the North Korean government. It can sometimes be difficult to understand how people can believe x, y, z but this book makes it easy to understand how it can happen and amazing that anyone manages to start doubting such an all-encompassing worldview.
One of the more surprising parts of the book to me was that at first Hyeonseo just wanted to see China. She had no intention of leaving North Korea forever. It’s just once she got out and visiting relatives in China she dragged her feet about going back until it was too dangerous for her to go back. (She would have been captured upon return and put in a prison camp for daring to leave at all). She now was in China with a totally different life path than she’d initially imagined. What was originally a vacation was now most likely a lifetime of being a fugitive. I think this part of the book is where Hyeonseo’s practicality and iron will first shine through:
Now that I was to stay indefinitely in China, I had to learn Mandarin. And I had the best teacher – necessity. You can study a language for years at school, but nothing helps you succeed like need, and mine was clear, and urgent. (location 1781)
I learned so much in this book beyond the horrors of what happens in North Korea. Like that China has an extradition agreement with North Korea which means that if any refugees are caught in China they are brought back to North Korea to face certain imprisonment and possibly death. I can’t imagine what it would be like to escape a dictatorship into the neighboring country and know at any moment you could be seized and sent back.
I also learned that South Korea has declared any North Koreans who make it to their land to be South Koreans and actually provide a lot of repatriation assistance but that the divide is growing between North and South Korean cultures the longer the divide is up, and some are concerned about how the two can ever be reunified once the North Koreans are freed from the dictatorship.
Hyeonseo provides a lot of insightful commentary about living under a dictatorship, human nature, brainwashing, and more. My favorite though was this:
There is no dividing line between cruel leaders and oppressed citizens. The Kims rule by making everyone complicit in a brutal system, implicating all, from the highest to the lowest, blurring morals so that no one is blameless. (location 2368)
The only other thing I wish to say is that everyone should read this book.
4 out of 5 stars
Book Review: Mindfulness and Grief: With Guided Meditations to Calm Your Mind and Restore Your Spirit by Heather Stang
Mindfulness & Grief is an eight-week guide using meditation, yoga, journaling and expressive arts, plus inspirational stories, to help you reduce suffering and emerge transformed on the other side of loss.
Most of my readers know that I lost my father suddenly and unexpectedly last November (my eulogy). I reached out for books to help me, as I have my whole life. I reviewed the first one I read here. The first book I reached out to was a more raw experience, and I think that’s reflected in that review. For the second book, I was particularly seeking something to guide me so I didn’t become stuck in any one feeling or place. I’m not religious, but I do consider myself to be both science-minded and spiritual, and I know mindfulness holds a lot of esteem in psychology. So when I saw this book offering basically an 8 week course in mindfulness specifically for grief, I thought it’d be a good match.
It’s obvious that it took me much longer than 8 weeks to complete the book. I think putting 8 weeks on there is a bit unrealistic. I often found at the end of the week in question that I wasn’t yet ready to move on to the next phase or that I hadn’t had time to do the activities in the book yet. I think the book often fails to consider how busy the person who is also grieving might be. There is much more going on in your life than the grief and so it must be compartmentalized and dealt with only periodically. That said, I did find the phases to be appropriate and in the right order, and once I gave myself permission to do them at whatever pace I deemed appropriate, I found working through them helpful.
Each chapter talks about where you might be emotionally at this point and offers stories from others who’ve gone through the grief process to help you feel less alone. Each chapter ends with some activities to do. Some of them are guided meditations, others are prompted journaling and still others are activity suggestions such as specific types of yoga or walking. I found the journaling prompts to be the most helpful. They were straight-forward and often pushed me to encounter an uncomfortable feeling I was trying to avoid in my grief and work through it.
The book said that the guided meditations could be accompanied by recordings on the partner website but at the time I was trying to do them I could not find them. It’s not easy to do a guided meditation that you must repeatedly open your eyes and read. I suppose I could have made my own recordings based on what the book said but my energy level was low at the time (due to the grief) and I instead tried to use them with the book, which wasn’t particularly helpful. I think this book could work really well if it came with a digital download of the meditations and maybe even some guided yoga sessions. There were a few written out yoga sessions as well, which I always find difficult to follow.
In spite of the shortcomings, I still found this book helpful in my grief. It wasn’t exactly the program to follow that I was expecting but it did provide timely journaling prompts and stories from others that helped me feel comforted.
4 out of 5 stars
In April 1992 a young man from a well-to-do family hitchhiked to Alaska and walked alone into the wilderness north of Mt. McKinley. His name was Christopher Johnson McCandless. He had given $25,000 in savings to charity, abandoned his car and most of his possessions, burned all the cash in his wallet, and invented a new life for himself. Four months later, his decomposed body was found by a party of moose hunters. Krakauer found himself fascinated by this young man and set out to tell his story.
I read this in print, which meant everyone could see what book I was reading (at work, on the bus), and I must say I was surprised at how polarizing McCandless (who primarily called himself Alex) is. Some people find his obsession with living off-grid admirable, while others found it wasteful and irresponsible. Regardless of what you think of Alex, Krakauer presents his story in an engaging way, starting with the bare facts of how he was discovered and then taking the reader through his own investigation into who Alex was.
I feel like a lot of us know a person who is some flavor of Alex. Someone who grew up with the world his oyster but pushed it away in pursuit of simpler things. Some people take this to a reasonable level. For instance, they might refuse the $25,000 in savings from their parents but also not give it away to charity. Or they might give that money away but keep enough to get started on, not actually burn money. It’s very interesting to me how many people react with such utter disdain for Alex burning the money. I think it’s a clear example of an act of youthful passion. He really believed in this way of life. He really wanted to distance himself from his family. So he destroyed something. I wonder, when people react so strongly to this, whether they, in their youth, were never moved to destroy something in a symbolic manner? Perhaps some people are just not so possessed by the passion of youth.
In any case, while Krakauer’s own opinion of Alex is pretty clear by the end of the book, he does a good job holding it off for quite a while, letting the reader make up their own mind. I also think he might not realize he does this but he draws some interesting parallels to Walden and Thoreau that might make people who dislike Alex realize the privilege Walden and Thoreau were exercising in choosing to “go into the woods” but a woods they could leave at any time.
As a person who grew up in a very rural area with a father who hunted and fished and a family who grew our own garden of food and learned to shoot a rifle at a young age, I understand many Alaskans’ disdain for Alex. There’s something insulting about someone who has studied and learned nothing or next to nothing about surviving off the land just waltzing in and claiming they can do it. And often these people put the locals who live there in danger, whether by needing rescuing or causing wildfires or what have you. I get that. But I also get the impulse those who were raised far from the land with too much handed to them on a platter have to go out and prove they can do it on their own. For a long time I myself couldn’t understand the downsides of coming from money but I have come to learn them from observing others who come from money. There is a certain freedom in family and money not going hand-in-hand and in being pushed into adulthood and making it on your own early.
If this clash of those living on the land and those desiring to abandon it all and live on the land intrigues you, you’ll enjoy this book. It’s well-written, even-handed, and demonstrates the value in taking a moment to consider other perspectives and not jump to heated conclusions.
4 out of 5 stars
Book Review: The Reason I Jump: The Inner Voice of a Thirteen-Year-Old Boy with Autism by Naoki Higashada
Born in 1992 and diagnosed with Autism at the age of 5, Naoki uses an alphabet board to painstakingly write. In this book, he addresses answers to common questions neurotypicals have about people with Autism, such as “Why do you line up your toy cars and blocks?” and “Why don’t you make eye contact when you’re talking?” Mixed in with answers to these questions are short stories that Naoki has written, squashing the myth that those with Autism lack imagination.
I read this for Katie of Doing Dewey’s Nonfiction Book Club back in April, which was also Autism Awareness Month. I don’t often have the time to do group reads, but this book appealed to me and was short, would count for the Mental Illness Advocacy Reading Challenge I host, and I was able to get a digital copy from the Boston Public Library. I read this in one day in just my morning and evening commutes. It’s a short but mind-opening work.
For those who don’t know, Autism is a spectrum disorder. This basically means that Autism can severely or minorly impact how a person with it functions with the world (and everything in-between). Someone who is high functioning may mostly just strike others as a bit odd, whereas those most severely impacted are unable to communicate at all. You may read more about Autism here.
Naoki’s Autism is more severe. He is mostly unable to speak but he has learned how to communicate by pointing to an alphabet board with an assistant who writes down what he points at. Since Autism is so individualized, bare in mind when reading this book that his answers might not necessarily apply to everyone with Autism. That said, Naoki generally answers the questions with the word we, not I. My suspicion is this may be due to cultural reasons. Naoki is Japanese, which is generally a less individualized culture than our own. Additionally, his words have been filtered through a translator. It’s important, I believe, for a reader to keep all of these things in mind when reading this book.
This is a short book and an easy read, so I won’t say too much beyond the two biggest takeaways I had. First, I think in general people often wonder if people with Autism are similar to neurotypicals inside or are completely foreign. I think Naoki’s book smashes that question with a sledgehammer. It left me with the distinct impression that people with Autism are extremely similar to neurotypicals, but their signals from their bodies interfere with their ability to interact with the world. But Naoki puts this better than me.
It’s as if we’re remote-controlling a faulty robot. (page 16)
My second takeaway was that we should never make assumptions about anyone with Autism. The biggest example of this is that it is generally assumed people with Autism do not have an imagination. (I’ve even seen having an imagination being used as a way to rule out some people as having high functioning Autism). But Naoki, who very clearly has Autism, also very clearly has a bright imagination. His own short stories are inter-mixed throughout the book. They struck me as things any 13-year-old might write. That may sound simple, but that’s a big deal for a person who others might assume is “abnormal” for 13 with “no imagination.”
I do wish that the person interviewing Naoki had asked a wider variety of questions. Some of the questions can get a bit repetitive, and I wondered why they didn’t ask something deeper. Instead of continually asking things like why do you do this or why do you do that ask more about what he enjoys. What his hopes and dreams are. Does he think there’s a god. Things like that.
Overall, though, I highly recommend this book to anyone who is curious about what it’s like to have Autism, as well as to those who do or may come into contact with someone with Autism.
4 out of 5 stars
Mental Illness Advocacy Reading Challenge