Mental Health, With Strings Attached

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By Carolyn See,
who can be reached at www.carolynsee.com
Friday, October 24, 2008

DOCTOR OLAF VAN SCHULER'S BRAIN

By Kirsten Menger-Anderson

Algonquin. 290 pp. $22.95

This little book isn't for everyone, but I sure loved it. If, like me, you've thought from time to time that under our controlled demeanors, our learning and good manners, we're all about one millimeter away from being stark, staring mad, and that the doctors who set up to treat us are probably just as crazy as the rest of us, if not more so, you'll sigh and smile when you read this.

These linked short stories take as their subject the sheer weirdness of the medical profession (mostly as it pertains to neuropsychiatric problems). They provide us with a history of mental ailments in America, how they went in and out of fashion according to the times in which we lived. They also give us a wonderful history of the city of New York, with all kinds of seamy and gruesome details thrown in. And they examine our unrelenting curiosity about what actually goes on underneath our skins.

Doctor Olaf van Schuler is the patriarch of an extensive family of physicians of dubious origins and only intermittently good intentions. Olaf, who suffers from severe seizures, escapes from Amsterdam to New Amsterdam in the year 1664, taking with him only his medical instruments, an inventory of various tinctures and remedies, and his insane mother in a crate. Once he reaches America, his dearest wish is to cure her. Pursuing this aim, he procures the heads of dead pigs and cows and slices down into their brains. He see that "the brain was connected to the extremes of the body by a series of strings, and that the soul must rely on those strings to impart its will." It's not a bad theory as far as it goes, but Olaf has inherited his mother's madness, and his ambitions are cut cruelly short.

We next see his son, also a (self-proclaimed) doctor, who hangs out in a sordid tavern in what is now called New York, immersing himself in medical arcana: "an obscure case of frogs in a child's stomach, a grandmother who birthed a wild duck, a man who'd grown seven thumbs." He grieves that he's never seen any of these things, but when his landlord's hideously obese (and crazy) wife is found grotesquely burned to death in the tavern cellar, the doctor is able to testify with confidence that "the reported victim had consumed four pints of sherry . . . and soon thereafter combusted, leaving only a fatty, yellow-gold substance on the walls and floor." The landlord is exonerated.

All these afflictions, treatments and possible cures take place in a city that is grime-encrusted, crime-infested and filled with people who are only marginally sane. The next story reveals to us that Wall Street used to be famous for its slave market and that during the same time a quack doctor wandered the streets and purported to raise the dead by filling their mouths with garlic and jabbing needles between their toes. When one of these resurrections fails, an unjust public execution ensues.

The author provides us with a fascinating, detailed family tree so that we can follow the connections of these charlatans (or are they simply dedicated but incompetent healers?) as they diagnose the fashionable diseases of their day and attempt to cure them with the most fashionable treatments. A spirited girl, part of this same family, finds meaning in her life by working with inmates at the city prison. When she refuses an arranged marriage, her father diagnoses her with hysteria, that convenient disorder of uppity women that had to do with an excessively frisky womb. Ah, but in the next story the same girl, grown up by now, grabs the family property by applying her fanatical belief in phrenology.

Animal magnetism as a cure-all; neurasthenia as a ubiquitous ailment (treated by increasingly brutal electric shocks); radium water as a cure for everything, even cancer; prefrontal lobotomies -- a freak show of medical missteps shows up here, coupled with matching, pertinent history. (The poor department-store clerk who suffers from neurasthenia is probably weak and disconsolate because he's worked to the bone and doesn't get enough to eat; the foil in his story is a suffragette, bursting with energy and the knowledge that history is on her side.) And to be sure that the reader doesn't perceive all this as a far-off and safely quaint past, one of the modern members of this family of doctors spends his life stuffing women's breasts with silicone implants, leaving a trail of sick, sometimes crippled females behind him.

The hard, hard question behind these tales would seem to be this: Just how far, in 400 years, has the medical profession really advanced? Are we deluding ourselves when we put our faith in this form of "science"? Does our own irrationality occlude our vision at almost every turn? Suppose, for instance, that cleanliness and fresh food (not elaborate tests and iffy treatments) are what contribute to our longer life spans? The easier way to look at all this, the way that doesn't ask the hard questions, is simply to marvel at man's undoubted strangeness.

Sunday in Book World

· Domestic goddesses teach us how to live.

· John Updike resurrects the witches of Eastwick.

· José Saramago cheats death.

· John Lennon sings a song.

· And Peter Straub collects some creepy tales.


© 2008 The Washington Post Company

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