Subtitled "A Memoir of Mental Interiors," this book is both an exploration of self and a search for reasons that led to the suicide of the author's friend, Henry, when both were of college age. But there is more. As the memoir unfolds, we learn that since childhood, the author experienced episodes of inexplicable, preoccupying, repetitive thoughts and behavior patterns--much later diagnosed as obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD). And finally, Barber discusses being drawn to work with mentally retarded people in a group home, and the mentally ill homeless at Bellevue Hospital in New York City.Growing up in an intellectual New England family with a tradition of sending its sons to Andover (a prestigious prep school) and Harvard, Barber was expected to continue the tradition, and so he did. At Harvard, however, Barber found himself disintegrating into obsessive thinking, unable to concentrate, near suicidal. He withdrew from Harvard, went back to his small town, hung out with his friends Henry and Nick, washed dishes in a local restaurant, took courses at the local college. Obsessive thinking continued to torment him.In desperation, he dropped out of college again, quickly finding a position as a "childcare worker" in a local group home. The author believes this step was the turning point that led eventually to effective treatment of his OCD (psychotherapy and Prozac), completion of his education, a fulfilling "career" in mental health recovery, and a happy family life. He is currently an associate of the Yale Program for Recovery and Community Health at Yale University School of Medicine.


This is a valuable, well-written memoir that skillfully interweaves the strands of Barber's young adult life with his affinity for working with the mentally ill. The author provides many insights--not only into obsessive compulsive thinking, but also into how difficult life can be when one does not fit into or desire the path that has been laid out by one's family. In the end, there really is no accounting for why one of three highly intelligent young men (Henry) turns to alcohol and drugs and commits suicide--even though unrecognized depression was certainly a factor--and a second one (Nick) says of himself "Nick lived a disjointed life, and often fancied himself a professional underachiever and dilettante . . . [who] successfully avoided most adult middle-class responsibilities, and by 35, he determined he would not have children of his own. 'The line stops here' he would declare, relieved and rueful at once" (190).Barber is convinced that his own experience of mental illness and of Henry's suicide has equipped him particularly well to work with communities such as the mentally ill homeless. "Sometimes, horribly, I think this: I'm glad Henry died, and I'm glad I have OCD. It has allowed me to do this work. I am a more troubled but a more effective person as a result of OCD" (165). Detailed and sympathetic portraits of the "clients" he works with--and the situations surrounding homelessness and the shelter system--are powerful segments of the memoir.It is striking that Charles Barber could not communicate to his family his obsessive thinking and the torment it was causing him, the true reasons for dropping out of college, his preoccupation and guilt about Henry's suicide, or even that he had found help through psychotherapy and medication [(he does note that his parents were involved in finding a local therapist for him but "the gory details of my diagnosis were always kept from them" (198)]. Not until he was deeply into the writing of this memoir was he able to reveal these truths to them. Indeed, Barber makes clear that the exploration of his past and of himself that were necessary to write this memoir, the need to make sense of experience through narrative, has been in and of itself revelatory and healing. And the book demonstrates that the boundary between mental health and mental illness is tenuous indeed.


Charles Barber's essay, "Songs from the Black Chair," published in the Spring 2004 issue of the Bellevue Literary Review, was selected for inclusion in Pushcart's Best of The Small Presses (November, 2005).


Univ. of Nebraska Press

Place Published

Lincoln, Nebr.



Page Count