A poor case study
The Drugs That Changed Our Minds by Lauren Slater Simon & Shuster, 416pp
In Prozac Diary (1998), Lauren Slater wrote powerfully of the way fluoxetine had transformed her previously chaotic life. While the author recorded a handful of negative sideeffects – a profound loss of libido, for instance – the reader was left with the sense that Prozac had pieced back together the shards of Slater’s existence. In some ways, The Drugs That Changed Our Minds is a sequel to that book. Slater is now in her mid-50s, recently divorced, and on a cocktail of antidepressants. She’s “a consumer of polypsychopharmacy”, having taken fluoxetine, venlafaxine, olanzapine, aripiprazole, clonazepam, lisdexamfetamine “and probably one or two other tablets I’m forgetting because there are so many”.
The book weaves between Slater’s personal history and a wide-ranging narrative of the development of the psychopharmalogical industry, with each chapter following a new evolution in the antidepressant market. Where Prozac Diary was a (measured) celebration of the power of mood-altering drugs, the tone here is far more jaded. Slater has seen her mental and physical health eroded by the hedonic logic of pill-popping: she needs to take more and more with each passing year just to stay (more or less) sane.
Slater swallowed her first psychiatric drug – imipramine, for depression – at 19. “Now, 35 years and 12 drugs later, my kidneys are failing, I have diabetes, I am overweight and my memory is perforated. As the years close in on me, my lifetime now seems seriously foreshortened, not because of a psychiatric illness but because of the drugs I have taken to treat it.” Slater’s sex drive has been more or less permanently erased and she found that Prozac stripped her of her creative impulse. “It was as if fluoxetine had dried up the well from which my deepest dreams and images sprang.”
This last point might account for one of the failings of The Drugs That Changed Our Minds: the uneven quality of the prose. When Slater takes us through the history of chlorpromazine and lithium, fluoxetine and Tofranil, the style is cogent and fluent, if occasionally a little dry. When the narrative rounds to her own experience, though, things are on shakier ground. Slater notes early on that she’s “compulsive by nature”. There’s something compulsive about her writing, too. First, the descriptive prose is often painfully overblown: every noun must have its accompanying adjective. It’s as if she fears the solitude of the unadorned word. There are too few descriptions of the experiences of others and too much of Slater’s own life story, much of it either repetitive or otiose. Where Slater does give us Oliver Sacks-like case studies they are fascinating. But they are too brief.
This is a better book than Johann Hari’s very similar Lost Connections, published in January. Slater shares with Hari scepticism towards the 20th century’s antidepressants; they also both write illuminatingly on the therapeutic possibilities of psychedelic drugs like magic mushrooms, but Slater is better on the grotesque corruption of the pharmaceutical industry. Slater’s attempt to construct an overarching history of psychopharmacology stumbles partly because the development of one drug reads much like any other. More problematic, though, is that her central case study – herself – is neither interesting enough nor written about with sufficient eloquence to hold our attention.
Pill-popping … Lauren Slater’s book shows how little we know about how the human brain works