Prozac Diary

Peter Kurth reviews 'Prozac Diary' by Lauren Slater.

Published August 27, 1998 7:00PM (EDT)

What are the actual chances of a seriously disturbed adolescent girl, prone to depression, eating disorders and self-mutilation, emerging after years of treatment and repeated psychiatric hospitalizations to become not only a doctor of psychology but a writer of the first rank, a woman whose work rises effortlessly to the top of the list of "recovery" memoirs that have flooded the market in recent years? Such a woman is Lauren Slater, whose new book, "Prozac Diary," is as fine a chronicle of illness and regeneration as you will ever read. Slater writes like an angel, in a dreamy, joyously reflective narrative that remains both intensely personal and miraculously detached.

"How do you describe emptiness?" she asks. "Is it the air inside the bubble, the darkness in a pocket; snow? I think, yes, I was six, or seven when I first felt it, the dwindling that is depression ... Even back then, at the very beginning, I carried myself with a kind of confidence and verve, and I have yet to understand how energy can so easily co-exist with what is hollow." "Prozac Diary" is the record of Slater's 10 years on the wonder drug, first as a patient in clinical trials and later as a reluctant but inexorable convert to the miracle of psychotropics, with the attendant revelation that she is not, and never can be, wholly "herself" while swimming in a sea of chemicals. Slater was long attached to the comforts of being ill, the exemption sickness gave her from the experiences of ordinary life. There is "a loss" in rising to your feet, she says, in getting it all together, shopping for furniture and looking for lovers, houses and jobs.

"Much has been said about the meanings we make of illness," says Slater, "but what about the meanings we make out of cure? Cure is complex, disorienting, a re-visioning of the self, either subtle or stark. Cure is the new, strange planet, pressing in ... I was definitely a different person now, both more and less like me, a burgeoning mystery fulfilling one destiny while swerving from another." Along the way, Slater worries a lot about the potential loss of her "creativity" -- a baseless fear on the evidence of this book -- and about the spiritual diminishment that Prozac might cause in people whose deepest need is for meaning. Entertaining a lover, she wants him "just [to] lapse into senseless stanzas, into a jungle of useless beauty, and proclaim something smutty and gorgeous like, 'when I fuck you it's sliding into a satin slipper, only softer and honey to taste.'" Instead he tells her that "our whole world is comprised of only five basic properties -- hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, magnesium, zinc."

"And truly there is a kind of primitive poetry to that statement," Slater writes, "something rhythmic and essential." Her "shame about being drug-dependent is very American," her chemist boyfriend tells her. Still uneasy, she stays the course, likening Prozac to "Zen medicine" and slowly coming around to "Prozac's point of view, which posits god as a matter of molecules and witchcraft as a neural mishap." It could be that Prozac is "a conduit" to the essential self, Slater thinks, "a kind of psychotropic draino clearing the congestion so shine is visible." Her book, at least, is a perfect jewel, rinsed clean of dreck and psychobabble and pointing hopefully, cautiously, to the Brave New World.

By Peter Kurth

Peter Kurth, a regular contributor to Salon Books, is the author of "Isadora: A Sensational Life." He lives in Burlington, Vt.

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