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Charlie Whitaker

Jacqueline McGhee

ENGL 1A

20 February 2019

Stories and Infectious Emotions

Aeschylus, regarded the father of tragedy wrote, “There is no pain so great as the

memory of joy in present grief” (Aeschylus Quotes). Lauren Slater’s memoir, ​Welcome to my

Country,​ chronicles the beginning of her career as a psychiatrist in an in patient male

schizophrenic population in Boston. The chapters titled “Some Kind of Cleansing” and

“Holes” follow the story of two patients, schizophrenic Joseph who struggles with

hypergraphia, and the clinically depressed Marie. Slater’s writing not only focuses on their

illness but also on themselves, their hopes, memories, and experiences which—applying to

Aeschylus’ words—are facets of the joy of life, and in doing so captures aspects of their

humanity to reveal pain that transcends the objective truth of loss that accompanies mental

illness.

The introduction of Joseph’s story paints a surface picture of a man in the tight grips

of schizophrenia, who’s words give the impression he is oblivious to reality, and yet seem

poetically keen to his condition. Slater expands on this apparent awareness to show a

positive, albeit tragic, quality in him. We see this with Slater’s description of forty-six year

old Joseph, who is unkempt, sporting inappropriate apparel such as a green shirt decorated

with medals, fictitious honors he claimed from WWI (Slater 68). During their first meeting,

we glimpse an example of Joseph’s furious writing, “ . . . pregnant girls meant to effigure an

elder statesman” (70). His written words make no clear sense and show the symptom of

disorganization and overinclusion in schizophrenics (72). However he then says, “I wish with
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a dowager’s meaning that I could separate it, that I could read and write again” and later, “My

head, has been pocked up by needles. Knives. Fat-charged electrons. Peck Peck” (71), which

when taken literally provides further evidence of his psychosis, but the imagery it creates is

fitting to his plight. Indeed his frustration with hypergraphia makes him wish he could

“separate” the “meaning” from the compulsive writing in his words, to form linear though,

feeling as if there are parts missing and his “head has been pocked” feeling the pain from the

loss of his faculties for words, describing it like “needles” or “knives” that are “pecking”

away. Slater uses this to put a spotlight on his human qualities, saying that “he wrote with a

vengeance” and had the potential to be an artist if he had the capability to organize his

thoughts (72). She shows Joseph’s intelligence and sensitivity from his awareness that he

“mushed the whole world together . . . his thoughts blurred and bled”, describing his efforts

to create as “heroic and poignant” as evidenced from his IQ scores, which showed him to

have had excellent verbal capacity before he became ill, eclipsing his current aptitude for

language, a tragedy the reader would “surely . . . feel [from] the smack of such a loss”

(73-74).

The insurmountable loss from Joseph’s affliction is made even more tragic by Slater’s

recounting of his past, paralleling his present moments and adventures while under her care,

making use of the stories to further reveal Joseph as a person. Slater writes of a school across

from the building of the ward, where Joseph would look out longingly at the students (74).

This ties in with the knowledge that Joseph’s illness did not emerge until he was a student at

Princeton, where his professors claimed he started acting strange and seeing things, fighting

his roommate, and experiencing paranoia (83), which shows another aspect of the joy, and

later loss of his identity as a man of academe. Joseph’s sister tells of his childhood in a

culturally rich small Italian community with his family, exposed to languages such as
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English, French, and Italian. His father owned a restaurant where Joseph was a bright helper,

already loving words as he learned “names of exotic ingredients, letting them linger on his

tongue as though the sounds themselves were spiced . . . It was a life rich in detail” (78-80).

We witness the joy of family in Joseph’s life, which punctuates further the pain from the loss

of that joy. In the end, all these examples succeed to communicate Joseph as a man, his life

recognizable and his loss tragic. When asked about what it was like to be so confused, Joseph

responded “It is like . . . being trapped inside the dragon” (74). A special book in Joseph’s

possession has his words written, “OH THAT I COULD GO TO THE SKY WHERE I

MIGHT FIND A CLEAR KNOWING" (77). Joseph wants to view everything from above, to

see the bigger picture and make sense of everything, see the connections and separate what

doesn't belong, the distractions. These are the things he cannot see, he is in the dark “trapped

inside the dragon” unable to recognize and grasp the language of his life.

Marie’s story is introduced in the chapter “Holes”, where we see her shooting heroin

with a fellow drug user, addiction being a harsh reality and constant companion in her

struggle with depression (113). To shift the negative narrative that often accompanies those

with addiction, Slater employs Marie’s history and experiences to normalizes her, showing

her life as recognizable and familiar, making visible the challenges she faced. Combined with

the description of Marie’s experience with moments of remission, Slater’s writing manages to

capture the essence of Marie’s pain and translate this loss to the reader. Beginning treatment,

Slater uses talk therapy and asks about Marie’s past (116). After visiting a hospital as a child

to have a splinter removed, Marie had dreams of becoming a nurse. However, she grew up in

a household with a drunk father who abused her, and an emotionally unavailable mother that

frightened her (118), where hopes were failed to be nurtured, and talents had no room to

grow. Marie then goes to describe random moments of relief she experiences from her illness,
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with no rhyme or reason to their occurence, she spoke of “a lifting”(120-121). Slater’s

illustration as Marie “described these moments . . . her own voice sounded different, the flat

plodding taking on rise, rhythm” (121). Marie continues, “when these moments go away, I

want them back and then I wish they never came because things feel even harder afterward”

(122). Marie's later experiences one of these blessed reprieves, a span three weeks where she

was able to eat and sleep, as well as get a job mending computer hardware (123-125). During

this period, a completely different person emerges as Slater describes:

I was seeing her for the first time without the jammed grief. I noticed the wet

whiteness of her teeth. . . the soft green snake of a vein in her temple. If I watched the

vein for long enough I thought I could see the splutter of her pulse. . . And I could . . .

see Marie as the woman she might be able to be. (Slater 124-125)

When her depression came back, Marie went back to the house where she used, injecting the

heroin into her chest, causing an accidental overdose (126-128). When Slater asks if there

was any cause or recognizable reason, Marie had replied that, “She had just woken up that

morning and felt the dread of that depression back on her” (127). This poses the question,

how can Marie simply wake up depressed to such a point that she almost dies? Slater

addresses this through her writing, using metaphor, “Depression is a death within, a

knowledge—terrifying—that you cannot resurrect yourself” (129). Depression is not only

being dead inside, but being aware of the fact that, and try as you might, there is no escape or

resurrection. The experience that Marie has of her good days keeps her desire to be alive to

see the next one (130), however it is the memory, and loss of that same experience, which

moves her to seek relief from her suffering. Slater writes, “Depression is loss of the vision

that lets leaves breathe and fall, that lets the air smell of seed and soil”(129). Slater uses
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“vision” as in sight, and applies another definition—that of perception—to smell,the senses

lost in depression for the details of what makes life beautiful. This serves to shift the

perspective of Marie as a depressed junkie, to that of a person, a mortal being so affected by

the traumas of early life and the sways of emotion as time refuses to stop.

Altogether, Slater shows that even in the most extreme or debilitating illness of the

mind, the sufferers are indeed still human beings who breath, feel, and live, with a story of

their own, and a story still to write. Too often we as a modern society stigmatize those who

seek or receive these diagnoses, and yet treat the healing of such as a commodity. The

mentally unwell are ignored or written off, their pain and loss acknowledged, but rarely

validated—a blight to be hidden away. “Welcome To My Country” is both a memoir for

doctor as it is for patient. From the masterful and compassionate writing, the reader not only

learns of their loss, but in remembering their joy, understands their pain, ultimately sharing in

their grief.
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Works Cited

“Aeschylus Quotes." ​BrainyQuote.com,​ BrainyMedia Inc, 27 February 2019,

https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/aeschylus_383359

Slater, Lauren. ​Welcome to my Country.​ Anchor Books, 1996.