Smoking Cigarettes, Eating Glass: A Psychologist’s Memoir by Annita Perez Sawyer
A teenage mental patient endures dozens of shock treatments that cause her to lose all her memories. Years later, as a psychologist herself, she uncovers her medical records, which leads her to rediscover the traumatic memories that triggered her collapse as a young adult.
One of the fascinating things about memoirs is the idea of reading a true story, of connecting not with a character, but a real person whose experience you can share. Sawyer takes us into the depths of the disturbed thinking caused by her illness and trauma. The beginning of the book is kind of hard to read because it’s so upsetting to see someone treated this way by doctors and by her own mind. Later in the book, it’s great to see Sawyer triumph over her illness and win professional and personal success. She makes a narrator who’s easy to root for and care about.
In this kind of writing, the writer always has to make tough choices about which events to emphasize and which to leave out entirely, and those choices can never exactly meet up with the interests of all readers. I was interested in Sawyer’s family life and her relationships with her patients, but the focus of the book was on her own journey of understanding her past.
Despite the intense subject matter, this story feels less raw than other memoirs I’ve read, almost sanitized at times. I think that difference is partly generational. Sawyer is a little older than the Baby Boomers, so she doesn’t share that generation’s extravagant personality. For example, Boomer Jeanette Walls also writes about her family’s dysfunction, but the alcoholics in her family were a lot more flamboyant than the secretive ones in Sawyer’s. Also, Sawyer’s particular issues have to do with repression and dissociation, which naturally don’t lead to wild tales of acting out a la Cheryl Strayed (a Gen-Xer).
This story is about the courage it took for Sawyer to analyze herself, to look at her former self the way she looks at her patients, with empathy and kindness. One message of the book is for those who work in mental health, to be wary of misdiagnosis and projection. But beyond that, Sawyer writes with compassion about a lesson many of us need to learn at some point: how to forgive ourselves for what happened to us as kids. The ending of the book, as Sawyer begins to remember the truth about her childhood, is absorbing and disquieting.