With a trip to New York City just a week away it was hard for me to resist grabbing Julie Holland’s memoir Weekends at Bellevue: Nine Years on the Night Shift at the Psych ER when I spotted it on display alongside other books that were recommended by the library’s staff. For the last two months my practical side had been prepping for my upcoming trip to the Big Apple and the BookExpo America by studying AAA’s New York TourBook and fellow Portlander Gerry Frank’s Complete Guide to New York City. But with the acquisition of Holland’s 2010 memoir, in which she recalls her life as a doc practicing in one of the world’s largest and most notable psychiatric wards, my irreverent side could now learn about the more hidden and less savory aspects of New York City. You know, the stuff you can’t read about in any “official” guidebook.
After finishing Weekends at Bellevue about four days ago I can say that yes, as a reader intent on learning about the darker side of New York City I was not disappointed. Just as Dante had Virgil to serve as his guide to the hereafter, I had the luxury of Dr. Holland serving as my guide to that city’s world of the mentally ill. But perhaps more importantly, what impressed me the most by Holland’s memoir was her ability to learn and grow as a person.
Besides her many stories of day-to-day life dealing with the manic, the psychotic, the delusional, the suicidal, the addicted and everything in between, I’m glad she included a few notable incidents that occurred over the last decade. Besides the terrorist attacks on 9/11, she also recalls the senseless murder of Kendra Webdale, an up and coming young writer, who in 1998 was pushed in front of an oncoming subway train by a schizophrenic man. Holland was also a good friend of actor, writer and performance artist Spalding Gray and recalls his struggles with depression, ultimately causing him to take his life in 2004. I remember reading about both Webdale’s murder and Gray’s suicide in the national edition of the New York Times. I’m glad Holland was able to give a first hand account of both two events and in doing so put a human face on such tragedies.
Lastly, like I mentioned earlier, Holland as an individual grew throughout the memoir. When she starts her career, she is brash, somewhat immature and at times even reckless. Like many of us, after a number of years she grows into a loving and responsible parent who is considerably wiser and a bit more patient with the world. As a result of what she has learned, she also pontificates that the line separating the mentally ill and the “normal’ is a thin and diaphanous one, and our insecurity in dealing with this tenuous delineation is the cause for much of our fear and stigmatization of that vulnerable class of people. I don’t always see such tangible signs of personal growth in a memoir.
Much like many of the books I’ve discussed on this blog, Holland’s memoir has inspired me to read other books dealing with mental illness and related topics. Martha Stout’s The Sociopath Next Door, E. Fuller Torrey’s The Insanity Offense and Lee Stringer’s Grand Central Winter have all been on my list to read. After reading Weekends at Bellevue I think it’s high time I finally got off my butt and read them.