Strangers to Ourselves

“There are stories that save us, and stories that trap us.”

Joey Goodall / 11.3.22

Something that ends up constituting a large portion of what we talk about when we talk about identity (which everyone is doing all the time right now) are the stories we accept as our own. Journalist and New Yorker staff writer Rachel Aviv’s excellent recent book, Strangers to Ourselves: Unsettled Minds and the Stories That Make Us, wonders about this in the context of mental illness. She writes, “There are stories that save us, and stories that trap us, and in the midst of an illness it can be very hard to know which is which.”

When Aviv was six years old, she was diagnosed with anorexia, one of the youngest people ever given that diagnosis. Anorexia is often described as a “reading disorder, brought on by uncritical consumption of texts that present thinness as the feminine ideal.” But Aviv was only starting to read, and had never heard of anorexia before her diagnosis. In her second grade diary, she explained that, “I had anexorea (sic) because I want to be someone better than me.”

This is devastating coming from a second grader reflecting back on feelings she had at six, but it’s also how many of us feel a lot of the time. Maybe we don’t turn to anorexic measures, but we find something else to give us a sense of control, or we adopt a story about ourselves that we can use for good or ill, or sometimes both depending on the person, circumstances, and what arises from internalizing said story. Unsurprisingly, the stories associated with religious faith (or active resistance to it) often get intertwined with these other narratives.

Aviv grew up going to Hebrew school three times a week, and in treatment, befriended another (older) Jewish girl named Hava (whose journals get referenced throughout the book), who wrote that she was terrified that she would not be written in the book of life, and blamed herself for “not achieving a state of holy perfection.” One of the other chapters of the book is written about a woman named Bapu who had a deep devotion to the Hindu god, Krishna, and how that, combined with mental illness, affected her family. At one point her son, feeling a similar pull to run away from his family to go live in a temple, is chastened when he reads a written conversation with Ramana Maharshi that discourages people from doing so, saying, “If you go to those places, beware: the same mind is going to follow you wherever you go.”

The most difficult chapter to wrap one’s head around is the story of Naomi. At 24, Naomi, a young Black woman, who, in the midst of a schizophrenic break (undiagnosed at the time), dropped her twin fourteen month-old boys off a bridge into the Mississippi River below before climbing over the railing and falling herself. A bystander jumped in to try to save them, and successfully got Naomi and one of her sons to safety. The other son drowned.

Religious faith enters this story in both negative and positive ways. Negatively, after being released from the hospital, Naomi is initially placed in the Ramsey County jail where she is given room number 316, which she takes as “a sign that she is God.” This causes a further spiral until she is transferred to Minnesota’s largest psychiatric institute and prescribed antipsychotic drugs, which at last gives her clarity as to why she is in the hospital. She subsequently spends her days in bed weeping. Naomi is sentenced to fourteen years in prison, four on supervised release. Her doctors concluded that jumping off the bridge was “a choice she made in order to act out her defiance to society, which she perceived as ‘oppressive and unjust.’” The doctors “recognized the validity of her insights about society,” and thus agreed that her crime was not based on “‘psychotic delusion or distortion,’ because it was ‘meaningful within her religious and philosophical belief system, and suggests a young woman … in the midst of an emotional and spiritual crisis.’”

The positive influence of religious faith, however, can be seen in the story of Carl (a pseudonym), the man who saved Naomi’s life. Almost eleven years after the incident, Carl wrote to Naomi in prison, saying that when he had jumped in to save her, he had been depressed. “I, too, have faced this destroyer of hope and love. The fear of failure, the darkness and sorrow, that hides in all human hearts,” and asked if he could visit. Naomi agreed. Remembering the visit, Andrea Smith, the prison librarian, said, “I think she felt loved, and I think she felt she could love him. They were both such sad, hurt people in that moment, and I think their kinship came from knowing the world is much bigger than them.” The librarian gets close, but ultimately misses the real source of their kinship.

Carl remembers that “it was the kind of water that … he wouldn’t feel comfortable even going into with a boat. Nevertheless, he found himself swimming toward Naomi. He thought of Psalm 69: ‘Save me, Oh God / For the waters have come up to my neck. I sink in the miry depths.’ When he reached Naomi, she seemed barely aware of his presence. He thought, ‘Wherever you’re going, young lady, I am going with you. I am not going to let you go.’”

Whether Carl intended this to be an echo of Ruth’s biblical declaration of loyalty to her mother-in-law (also named Naomi), isn’t clear, but it’s difficult to not join the two. In the commentary on the book of Ruth found in Ellen F. Davis’ book, Opening Israel’s Scriptures, Davis writes that the book of Ruth is “a tragedy redeemed … a miniature of the whole biblical story.” The tragedies of the book of Ruth are “redeemed in the most unlikely way: through the deliberate embrace of one’s own vulnerability.” In accompanying Naomi to Bethlehem, “Ruth becomes … a widow… an orphan … and a sojourner … the three classical biblical categories of vulnerability.” In cleaving to Naomi after the deaths of their husbands, and going with her to Bethlehem, Ruth becomes a “vulnerable protector.”

Carl describes his time in the river as a “renewed Baptism.” He told Aviv, “When I dove off the rock, I stepped … into nothingness, into infinite space. I gave up my place in the world,” a decidedly vulnerable position. He said that in the moment, he loved Naomi, and wondered, “How can you love someone you don’t even know?” He told Aviv, “I wanted her to know that I didn’t judge her. I didn’t want to be the law. I just wanted to be someone who wasn’t going to let go of her in the river” — in other words, a protector.

***

Aviv’s anorexia resolved within the year, and her doctors ended up seeing it as an aberration, a mechanism used to cope during a time of great stress. Luckily, it never ended up providing “the language with which (Aviv) came to understand (herself),” although she is very aware that it easily could have. She writes, “Mental disorder can feel uncertain and liminal, but it can also be more straightforward, a tragedy that overwhelms people’s capacity to think and connect.”

In the book’s epilogue, Aviv returns to Hava’s story. She finds out that Hava, in her forties, had recently died, having never fully recovered from her eating disorder. The last years of her life, however, were among her happiest, as she had found love with a man named Tim, who knew firsthand how debilitating mental illness could be and came to their relationship from a place of understanding. Hava had a son at 25 and made an adoption plan for him and kept in contact with the parents. Her son’s adopted father Larry “attributed (Hava’s) well-being to the connection that she and Tim had formed through shared vulnerabilities,“ saying, “We all strive to fill our cups alone, but often we can’t.”

During his earliest dealings with depression as a teen, Tim, a Catholic, “had begun reciting a prayer at night: “Please help me to use my sufferings to help others. Please don’t let my suffering be wasted.” After Hava’s death, Tim said to Aviv, “A lot of times your own sufferings — how you deal with your suffering — helps people.” This is what the prison librarian missed. It isn’t in our knowing that the world is bigger than us that we are healed and made capable of love; it is in acknowledgment of our shared suffering, and in the way God works to redeem our tragedies.

The stories that save us are those that act to free us, that allow us to share our actual vulnerability with each other. The stories that trap us are those that function as law, that close us off, that keep us imprisoned to them, whether they are stories of glory or stories of shame. And, in the midst of illness or not, it isn’t always particularly easy to discern between them.

Aviv quotes the psychologist Pat Deegen, who was diagnosed with schizophrenia at seventeen and later wrote, “Recovery does not refer to an end product or result … In fact, our recovery is marked by an ever deepening acceptance of our limitations.” She advocates for “transformation rather than restoration (becoming) our path.” This doesn’t sound too far removed from theologian Gerhard Forde’s take on sanctification:

If we are saved and sanctified only by the unconditional grace of God, we ought to be able to become more truthful and lucid about the way things really are with us…The grace of God should lead us to see the truth about ourselves, and to gain a certain humor, a certain down-to-earthness. When we come to realize that if we are going to be saved, it shall have to be absolutely by grace alone, then we shall be sanctified. God will have his way with us at last.

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COMMENTS


5 responses to “Strangers to Ourselves”

  1. David Zahl says:

    Wow. What a powerful piece of writing. Thank you Joey. This book sounds terrific.

  2. Joey Goodall says:

    Thanks, Dave! It really is an excellent book, well-written, insightful, balanced, interesting.

  3. Jane says:

    Wow. Beautiful and grace-filled, even in such a hard topic

  4. Jason says:

    “It isn’t in our knowing that the world is bigger than us that we are healed and made capable of love; it is in acknowledgment of our shared suffering, and in the way God works to redeem our tragedies.”

    Very good…

  5. Wayne says:

    “Pat Deegen, who was diagnosed with schizophrenia at seventeen and later wrote, ‘Recovery does not refer to an end product or result … In fact, our recovery is marked by an ever deepening acceptance of our limitations.’”

    Lovely. This is something I’ve belatedly come to accept as true in my life.

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