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Review of "The Art of Misdiagnosis"

By Gayle Brandeis
Beacon Press, 2017
Review by Christian Perring on Jan 2nd 2018
The Art of Misdiagnosis

The title of Gayle Brandeis's memoir tells the reader what to expect, as does the description in the blurb. But as she writes it, she brings her readers along with the experience of the frustration of dealing with her mother Arlene, and the anxiety of wondering what has happened to her when she disappears. After her mother's body has been discovered, she copes with the grief at the same time as raising her new-born child. Arlene was a complicated and difficult person who was a candidate for psychiatric diagnoses. Gayle reflects on her childhood when her mother encouraged her and her sister to present with symptoms of physical illness in an apparent attempt to get the attention of medical doctors. In her later life, Arlene was convinced her husband was persecuting her, trying to ruin her life. She imagined elaborate scenarios of plots to get at her, and she made many accusations. It was very difficult to reason with her, and she would imagine that other people were in on the plot if they didn't believe her.  Arlene was also busy at work making a never-released documentary titled The Art of Misdiagnosis which was meant to expose medical malpractice and incompetence, and the prevalence of little-known disorders that explain many people's mysterious symptoms. Spread through the book are excerpts from the documentary. Gayle reflects on what her mother says in her documentary, sometimes with appreciation and at other times with a more critical attitude.

So although the main story arc is fairly simple, there is a lot going on in this memoir, with flashbacks, digressions, and multiple voices. Brandeis herself is a talented writer with several other publications to her name, and here her approach is direct and reflective. While there is a very steady stream of memoirs of people coping with major mental illnesses, there are only a handful about surviving the suicide of a close family member, and Brandeis's, while very specific to her situation, deals with common themes. Her account of her anger at her mother for her difficult spells of difficult behavior, combined with her need to protect herself and her family from the corrosive effects of her mother's actions, is especially striking. She also makes clear her love for her mother, her gratitude for the good times they shared, and her admiration for her mother's achievements. Brandeis's experience of grief as she goes through her mother's belongings after the suicide, and learning about the details of the suicide, are especially moving.


© 2017 Christian Perring


Christian Perring teaches in NYC.