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Review of "Songs from the Black Chair"

By Charles Barber
University of Nebraska Press, 2005
Review by Sue Bond, M.A. on Jan 7th 2006
Songs from the Black Chair

"Over the last twenty years, the most significant thing I have learned is this: if you slam doors now, you're less likely to kill yourself later."

This quotation from the end of Charles Barber's memoir resonates strongly with the central story he tells, that of Henry Court, Barber's friend who killed himself when he was twenty-one after a prolonged period of psychotic and depressive illness. That was in 1983, and Barber wrote the book after recurrent dreams made him realize that he could no longer, after seventeen years, keep Henry's memory at bay.

To state the obvious, talking and listening are vital keys to approaching the diagnosis and treatment of mental illness. Henry and his friends, Barber and Nick, had known each other since childhood, and were all intelligent, well-read and high-achieving at college. But they were uncomfortable with talking about their emotional lives, and felt 'no need to discuss, to share'. This is common, of course, with adolescent boys and young men in particular (Barber calls it the 'almost universal male adolescent code of silence'), but the author recognizes, tragically, that some talking might have made a difference to Henry.

This silence went right through Henry's bizarre behavior: his 'trashings', when he would throw all of his possessions against his dormitory room wall and laugh manically each time an object shattered; his excessive drinking; his drug-taking, including LSD. Henry did not like questions about his feelings, and preferred to take his friend out on his motorbike, driving straight out of his bedroom into the outdoors.

It is ironic that the author also states at the end of his book that ideas without action mean nothing, and yet it was action without meaningful talk that deepened their problems.

The author writes frankly and in detail about his own mental illness, the obsessions that filled his mind in every waking moment, and how they started when he was very young. He writes with great precision and color about the way in which words repeated and repeated and repeated in his mind, and about how he had to fight the strong desire to kill people that also invaded his thoughts.

He is so frank that he can admit to us that 'OCD and Henry saved me from being ordinary', while also recognizing the horror behind it. Without the pain and struggle he encountered, his life could have been as smooth and uncomplicated and unrewarding as blancmange. Without the knowledge and experience he gained, he would not have entered the vocation he did, which was working with the mentally ill and homeless. He writes with compassion, humor and spirit about the men he cares for in the shelters, so that they are vividly alive, real people.

There are assertions that bothered me in the book, but by the end, I understood why he rebelled so fiercely against the intellectualism of his parents and the universities, and the academic life. He felt a strong resentment against the expectations that were placed upon him, that they took away the choices he should have had as to what he would do with his life.

He puts experience above book-learning in dealing with his patients, but I notice that constant reading was still one of the activities that made life worth living for him. He makes frequent references to literature throughout the book, and a particular note about a Hitchcock film that had a profound effect upon his mental state: the director's ability to 'murder and create' made him feel 'cleansed and renewed'.

He writes a little too glowingly about the handicapped men he cared for in a group home, in the years after Henry's death. There are wonderfully piquant descriptions of them, warm and humorous, but he almost wants us to believe that he would prefer to be like them, with no need for speech, just purely physical beings. I didn't believe it for a moment. However, I understand, once again, that this was what he needed at that stage in his life.

One other aspect of this memoir that still troubles me is the author's description of Joyce Court, Henry's mother. To me she reads as a supremely tragic figure, mired in alcoholism and grief, but once clever and successful. I can't shake off Barber's dismissive treatment of her, even when he writes that he must banish the suicidal from his life. It seems a little cruel.

Despite this jarring point, Charles Barber has written a passionate and honest book about those with mental illness. He combines the personal and the political quite subtly. It is also original, which is something to be prized.


© 2006 Sue Bond


Sue Bond has degrees in medicine and literature and a Master of Arts in Creative Writing. Reviews for online and print publications. She lives in Queensland,  Australia.

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