Sunday, 5 August 2018

Book review: Happy Never After, Jill Stark (2018)

This memoir was written after this successful journalist found she was experiencing anxiety, and after she had suffered panic attacks and had sought help from a psychologist. In the therapy sessions, Stark sought to unravel the maze of emotions and memories that had led to her current impasse, and discovered events in her past that she says were their cause. All the while being guided by her therapist.

Stark takes the reader on a journey of discovery that leads through some contemporary thickets where social interactions sometimes go less well than we often desire. These passages on the difficulties and benefits of social media are instructive but I felt a bit disappointed by this point because of the distance between the broader claims being made in the book on my behalf and the evidence being proffered to support them, and gave up reading it.

I also felt that the things that Stark was telling me about social media were hardly novelties, although what she wrote did sometimes confirm things I had thought myself. In the end, I just got bored because the material had become simply not challenging enough for me. I had admired the honesty of the passages that dealt with her emotional crisis, and observed her seeking help from qualified professionals. But now it all just seemed a bit too simple.

Which is a pity because the book starts out well. However the idea that you can trace the origins of present mental distress back to events that happened in a part of one’s life (early childhood) seems to me to be just a tad convenient. The brain, Stark tells us however, is plastic, so happily such detriments can be ameliorated. But in my experience the rationale being put forward misses a few glaring realities: mental illness might just have been caused by a sudden, traumatic even in the present, or may have its roots in a genetic predisposition.

Pat theories about early-childhood trauma rang in my mind as something approximating pop psychology. But that might just be because in my case there was, in fact, a sudden, traumatic event when I was aged 39 that turned my world upside down. There was never anything in my childhood that did it. The reason why it happened is as clear to me as the screen in front of my face.

So, different strokes for different folks. But Stark doesn’t package her message like this. In her book, the pattern she sets out is offered as the primary cause of mental ill-health in adults living today. I hold this might sometimes be true, but not necessarily in all cases. A sample of one (one psychologist, one person living with mental illness) is not really enough to reliably generalise for all people living in the community.

But with this new industry of confessional literature, people tend to generalise from the particular, and then imagine and rationalise in print all sorts of special insights founded on what is in fact often a debilitating constraint that dominates their waking lives, and can make life a living hell. I guess you always try to turn a sow’s ear into a silk purse, but that doesn’t mean I have to buy it every time.

I think that some people will get a lot from Stark’s gently humorous book. With my track-record, I probably see things differently from the way most people do, and the neat conclusions Stark draws from her experience and her treatment don’t mesh with the complexities of mental illness that I have experienced in my own life. I was glad to learn however that therapy had helped in Stark’s case, and sincerely hope that she will be able to enjoy a “normal” life in future.

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