Strangers to Ourselves
Unsettled Minds and the Stories That Make Us
The highly anticipated debut from the acclaimed award-winning New Yorker writer Rachel Aviv compels us to examine how the stories we tell about mental illness shape our sense of who we are.
Mental illnesses are often seen as chronic and intractable forces that take over our lives, that define us. But how much do the stories we tell about our illnesses--and the process of diagnosis--inform their course? In Strangers to Ourselves, a powerful and gripping debut, Rachel Aviv writes about how explanations for mental distress may shape our health, our sense of who we are, and the possibilities for who we can be in the world. Drawing on deep, original reporting and unpublished journals and memoirs, Aviv follows an Indian woman, celebrated as a saint, who lived in healing temples in Kerala; an incarcerated mother vying for her children's forgiveness after a period of psychosis; a man seeking revenge against a prominent psychoanalytic hospital through a lawsuit that dramatizes the clash between two irreconcilable models of the mind; an affluent young woman whose lifelong psychiatric treatment eventually leads her to go off her meds in a desperate attempt to figure out who she would be without them. Animated by a profound sense of empathy, Aviv's exploration is refracted through her own account of being institutionalized at the age of six and meeting Hava, a friend and fellow patient with whom her life runs parallel--until it no longer does.
While the stories unfold in different eras and cultures, they converge in the psychic hinterlands, the outer edges of human experience. Aviv writes about people who have come up against the limits of psychiatric explanations and endeavor to recover a sense of agency, in search of new ways to understand a self in the world. Challenging conventional ideas of mental disease as something static, Aviv's accounts are testaments to the porousness and resilience of the mind.
About this Author
RACHEL AVIV has been a staff writer at The New Yorker since 2013. She has written for the magazine about a range of subjects including medicine, legal ethics, and criminal justice. She was a finalist for the National Magazine Award for Public Interest for a story about elderly people stripped of their legal rights. She has received a Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers' Award and the Scripps Howard Award, for reporting about police violence. She was a 2019 national fellow at New America. She lives in Brooklyn.
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