Emily's Reviews > Acquainted with the Night: A Parent's Quest to Understand Depression and Bipolar Disorder in His Children

Acquainted with the Night by Paul Raeburn
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Nov 10, 09

Read in May, 2004

A few months ago, I read an advance copy of science writer Paul Raeburn's new memoir, Acquainted with the Night. In it, he chronicles how first his son, then his daughter, fell into the grip of violent and frightening manic depression. It's the print equivalent of Weezer's infamous Pinkerton album: something so raw and personal that you want to look away.

Raeburn and his wife Liz had three children: Matt, Alex, and Alicia. When the children were about 15, 11, and 9, Alex began to have behavior problems at school. Although he had previously been a model student, his bad temper led his teacher to write him off as a 'bad kid.' One day Alex falls apart--yells at his teacher, breaks things, and runs off into the forest, where the police eventually find him and take him to the ER. Paul and Liz begin the terrible process of finding a bed for a child in a psychiatric hospital and getting their insurance to pay for it. Over the next few months, Alex sees numerous psychiatrists--none are child psychiatrists, because there are none on the insurance plan--who give him numerous hypothetical diagnoses; he tries numerous medications, taking none long enough for them to have any effect. Raeburn identifies the psychiatrists as "psychiatrist #4, psychiatrist #7" and so forth, revealing a deep resignation and fatigue.

Just as Alex begins to stabilize, his younger sister Alicia (now a sixth-grader) attempts suicide and reveals that she has been cutting. The girls at her school call her a slut, a rumor cruelly reinforced when she is raped by an older student. Unlike Alex, who was sullen and frustrated, Alicia is flamboyantly disobedient. Then, during the most serious period of her illness, Paul and Liz begin divorce proceedings.

It is here that the book begins to derail. Neither Liz nor the eldest child, Matt, participated in the writing of this memoir, and their voices are sorely needed for balance as Paul's voice changes from that of a sympathetically desperate father to that of a defensive ex-husband. Paul feels that Liz didn't believe enough in the value of discipline, and that she took advantage of his working far away in Manhattan to make important decisions about the children's upbringing and care without including him. Despite what seems to be an attempt at impartiality, Paul's anger at Liz comes through in the book, vibrantly and violently. For example, he clearly blames her unwillingness to enforce the hospitals' behavior "contracts" for most of Alicia's problems. There may be justice in this, but it is hard to know what really went on when the characters have become blustery caricatures of themselves. You can see why Raeburn's eldest son--happily, he was at college during the divorce--was opposed to his father dragging this sordid period into the open in a memoir.

The ending of the book is a disappointment. Alex is now in college and Alicia is still in the middle of high school. To my mind, that means that the story isn't yet over; the reader longs to know whether they will remain healthy, or whether the stresses of young adulthood will cause new problems. I also wish that Raeburn had waited until the wounds from his divorce had healed. I suspect this would have been a much better book in 2009 than it is in 2004.
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Meaghan I actually wrote to Paul Raeburn several months ago, after he responded to a comment I had made about his book on a website. I asked how his kids were. They're fine. He reconciled with his oldest son, Alex graduated college, and Alicia is attending college. He's married again and has another child.


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