Saturday 22 June 2019

Pill by Robert Bennett    {Reviewed by STELLA}
Another gem from the 'Object Lessons' series, Pill is a fascinating account of the history and consequences of psychotropic medications. Starting with the drug revolution of the 1950s, when the new wave of pills moved the treatment of mental health away from ECT and the asylum, Bennett takes us on a philosophical exploration through several developments. Chapters 1 to 5 are titled by their pill name: 'Thorazine', 'Valium', 'Lithium', 'Prozac' and 'Adderall'. He lays out his explorations within the cultural context of each period, delving into literature, film and television — those visible cultural markers that predict and reflect social behaviour. From Brave New World and its Soma to the Mom of The Brady Bunch — your very average American housewife, taking her valium to calm herself before the neighbours come over for a gathering — to the documentary Prozac Nationand several memoirs (Terri Cheney, Elizabeth Wurtzel), to well-known films, Silver Linings Playbookand television, The Sopranos. He draws all this and more together, creating an interesting and revealing essay that reflects on the complex and diverse world of psychotropic medications and pills in general. Our decade has been described as “living in the most medicated era humanity has ever known”, and thinking about this makes one ponder the why and how of this explosion in taking pills. Some, of course, is the necessity for better drugs to help those who have mental illnesses cope in our everyday world, while other pills enhance or change our interaction with the world beyond ourselves, while other pills calm — mother’s little helper, Valium, and brother’s little helper, Ritalin (see The Simpsons and Bart’s dosing). The final chapter, entitled 'Coda', is equally absorbing. Bennett describes his own manic episodes — he is bipolar — and the effect of his different medications on his own functionality. Endlessly thoughtful and highly engaging, Bennett stresses that “Pill isn’t a book about mental illness, at least not directly; rather a philosophical exploration of how psychotropic medications...are used to treat mental illnesses and the larger philosophical implications of those medications’ abilities (and inabilities) to reconstruct the neuro-circuitry of the human brain.” Are we the same person when medicated? Which identity is dominant — the nature of the pill or the essence of ourselves?
(This review was written while listening to Johnny Cash’s 'Hurt').  

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