“Falling Into the Fire” by Christine Montross
Book review by Laurie Beth Jones
I have been reading “Falling into the Fire: a Psychiatrists Encounter of the Mind in Crisis”written by Christine Montross. In it she details the phenomenon of people standing in front of art, such as Caravaggios paintings of Christ, and suddenly losing their identity—literally. One patient who went into a prolonged state of “psychosis”said “I felt myself disintegrating when I gazed upon it.’”
Montross details in this and other stories the vagaries and mysteries of the mind, observed during her residency at a psychiatric hospital. She approaches the mind with a wonder and a sense of awe—aware of the limitations in the ‘practice’of psychiatry. She ponders how Joan of Arc would have fared had her uncle brought the young girl hearing voices to a hospital rather than to a discouraged Frenchman, who ultimately led her to the dauphin, who ultimately gave her his army.
She laments that those we romanticize as gifted through their insanity, such as Van Gogh, Plath, and Hemingway, suffered greatly through their art. She wonders if medication might not have stunted their “genius”as some surmise, but expanded it by allowing them to live longer and still productive lives.
She asks why we readily allow endless plastic surgeries for what may in fact be a mental condition called body dysmorphia, yet still judge people who also feel their body doesn’t match up with their mind’s self image—such as transexuals who are miserable until physical changes are made.
At the far end of the spectrum are those who find no mental relief until a healthy, functioning limb is amputated, even if they have to do it themselves. (I was shocked by this, and find few friends who want to discuss it.) But it seems the people who feel their hands or legs don’t belong to them lack the wiring in the parietal love that corresponds to that appendage. It is perceived by their minds that their limbs are a piece of luggage that doesn’t belong to them.
No hospitals will perform those amputations—we are all appalled at the thought—yet we readily discuss and even culturally encourage surgical enlargements or removal of bone and tissue in other areas.
All of this is to say that there is so much we do not know about what makes up our “identity.”How fortunate are those whose body image matches up with their parietal lobes. And as for “disintegrating when confronting an image of Christ”—isn’t this kind of transformation sought by all religions that seek to transcend the mind?
I read the book feeling blessed that there are those like Dr. Montross who are thoughtful, sensitive and intelligent—seeking to understand suffering that cannot be seen and thus easily healed.
It brought up questions around my own self image. For example, I still see myself still as a 30 year old, although my body and photographs say otherwise. I will continue to hold that image of myself even as my body finally disintegrates, at which point I believe my faith in eternal youth will be proven true. (Ta Dah!)
Where does your mind and body line up as an “integrated sense of self?”
How “sane”do you feel on any given day?
What would make up your identity if you couldn’t describe yourself in “roles?”
Have you ever literally lost yourself when gazing upon a piece of art or beauty?
Could this be a pre-view of death itself?
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