Little girls are resilient creatures, hiding in graveyards, under a white coat, behind the bathroom mirror of a 747. Every so often we dare ourselves to peek out and sometimes we even move forward, into the daylight – where the assassin has the open shot.
In Hesitation Wounds by Amy Koppelman, the reader is introduced to Dr. Susanna Seliger, a 43-year old psychiatrist who specializes in treatment resistant depression – a career that requires minimal emotional involvement with patients who have exhausted traditional therapy methods. Her tools are primarily drugs and electrocompulsive shock therapy, the latter of which often causes memory loss – the irony of which is not lost on the reader as the story unfolds.
Locked away, memory is as easy to preserve as truth. The thing is, what you choose to forget is as important as what you allow yourself to remember.
The story is narrated by Susanna (Susa) and told to Daniel (Dan), the brother she absolutely adored who died tragically 28 years earlier when they were both teenagers. The siblings were unusually close growing up but being the younger sister, Susa didn’t have the knowledge or experience to understand what was really going on in her brother’s mind in the years leading up to his death, until decades later. His death brought unbearable grief to her life and chartered a future that was rigid and copiously thought out.
…efficiency is obtainable through orderliness, success through proper conduct, professional distance through protocol. I was primarily a scientist. I provided a medical solution to illnesses that present as emotional problems.
The first chapter of the book is perplexing and confusing, there is so much going on that the plot seems unclear. But, gradually the reader realizes the story is written from the perspective of a woman who has achieved closure and an understanding of herself that took nearly three decades to obtain. There is grief – lots of it – but unlike other books that chronicle loss (The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion), the focus is on how one woman found the strength to move forward and accept that the people we love will leave us. Read the whole book and then go back and read the first chapter because the seeds of the whole story are planted in the first 12 pages of the book.
The catalyst for change comes in the form of a patient – 46-year old Jim, a journalist who has been suffering from depression for decades. Although talk therapy is rarely part of her treatment regime, Dr. Seliger sees something in Jim and draws him out which in turn draws her out. When he asks her “….if you could spend time with any one person again, who would you want to see?” she reveals herself by answering “Daniel.” When she realizes that “Jim couldn’t visualize the distance between himself and the destination,” she makes a gallant and heartwarming attempt to get him to look forward by telling him where she sees him six years in the future, promising to retell the same story if the electrocompulsive shock therapy takes the memory away. The story will make you cry because it seems so real and so possible.
The author notes that depression is an insidious disease, robbing patients of forethought and making them reactive participants oblivious to what suicide does to those who are left to ponder the what-if’s and navigate the “quicksand emotion” of grief (“The better you become at the art of rationalizing your behavior, the more certain you are to sink”). Although Seliger’s reluctance to take chances is a result of what she lost, the loss is not just about Daniel. It’s about losing her father as a child, her brother as a teenager, and her mother as an adult. It’s also about losing opportunity by taking a road that minimized intimacy and left her feeling hollow.
I’ve lived my whole life in reaction, Dan. Fear of intimacy masquerading as self-reliance. Inflexibility as conviction. Audacity as fearlessness. To the world, a broken person can appear whole when in truth each action is as automatic and hollow as the knee jerking after being hit with a doctor’s hammer.
And, it’s about having enough self-respect to stand up and take control of life when all the safeguards failed.
The backdrop of the story is the 1980’s and the author has a total grasp of the culture at the time: Pat Benatar, Lifesavers, Farrah Fawcett, bicycles with banana seats, joints, Twinkies, Wonder Bread, Phil Donahue, Easy Bake Oven, Camaros, Freebird, Joan Jett, Led Zeppelin, Pinball, and Crackerjacks, along with the issues that still make headlines today: First Amendment and free speech, police brutality, and youthful outrage. But, the real beauty of the author’s writing is that the reader feels like she is listening to the most intimate thoughts of someone who has a been to hell and back. At times, the prose feels like a dream with all the illogical thinking our brain does while the body sleeps and at other times a deeply honest account of a painful journey. It’s the combination – the logic and the illogical – that make this book a deeply moving account of loss and redemption.
The hows and whys can seem complicated, but it’s pretty simple really. There are two options. There is laughing and there is death. And in between, for an infinitesimally short moment, if you decide to partake in the folly, there is life.”
Just because you can’t see him doesn’t mean he’s not here.