Sunday, September 7, 2014

Pharmakon by Dirk Wittenborn

Pharmakon is a Greek word that can mean either cure or poison, and that’s a very apt description for Dr. Friedrich’s wonder drug that figured in these pages.

It’s 1951 and the brilliant neuropsychopharmacologist Dr. William T. Friedrich is a thirty-three-year-old untenured professor slaving away in the psychology department at Yale. He’s a man who has devoted his life to the study of unhappiness. After inventing a scale used to measure the progress of mental patients, to determine whether their condition is improving or deteriorating, he was snapped up by Yale. While his career shows promise, privately he is saddened by what the statistics show—remarkably few people with mental problems show any significant improvement after embarking upon treatment. Dr. Friedrich wants desperately to change this, and his red-headed colleague Dr. Bunny Winton, the first female psychiatrist at Yale, might hold the key.

Dr. Winton spent time in New Guinea where she discovered that the shaman of the Bagadon tribe fermented Kwina leaves, brewing a drink the natives took called Gai Kau Dong, or “The Way Home,” to imbibe after enduring stressful events or experiencing depression. Dr. Friedrich and Dr. Winton believe that these special leaves may hold the key, if they can isolate the psychoactive ingredients, they might be able to make a pill that will markedly improve the treatment of depression.

As their research and experiments progress, they advertise for human volunteers. Amongst these human guinea pigs is a young man named Casper, a pimple-faced geek with poor people skills; Dr. Friedrich’s wife persuades him to include Casper in the test after the young man, despondent over a lost love, attempts suicide. The drug has a miraculous effect on Casper, he becomes confident, his appearance improves, he makes friends, and gets a job as a bartender at a yacht club. But the drug has an unforeseen effect, Casper loses the capacity for empathy, his ego swells, and he becomes an unrepentant social climber who thinks nothing of using people, even friends, to get what he wants.

After the trial ends and the drug is withdrawn, Casper falls apart, he becomes paranoid, begins keeping a “Death List” and he’s serious about it, he actually kills Dr. Winton and possibly Dr. Friedrich’s little boy, Jack (it’s uncertain whether his death was murder or an accident).

Casper is sent to a high security mental hospital and Dr. Friedrich and his family try to start over again. They relocate to New Jersey and he takes work as a consultant for a drug company developing antidepressants. But they can never escape the ghost of Casper, eventually he escapes and comes after them.

Ironically, it is Casper’s escape and capture that rejuvenates Dr. Friedrich’s marriage and family life. The rest of the book, which follows the family from 1951 to 1994, tells the story of the children’s sibling rivalries and how their father alienated each one of them. His daughter rejects a career in psychology and instead runs off to work at a poor orphanage in Morocco.  She marries a British surf bum who ironically turns out to be a millionaire; his eldest son, a jock track star, turns out to be gay and moves to Italy to study art; while the youngest dabbles in drugs all the while keeping up the appearance of being a star student, he goes on to become a successful screenwriter but loses it all to drugs when he becomes a full-blown addict.

I enjoyed this book, tying in the story of drug developments to fight the battle against depression kept this from being what might otherwise have been just another dysfunctional family saga.  This is also a good novel for those interested in the history of science and medicine, especially the drug industry. It's one of those novels that you can read, enjoy the fictional story, and also feel like you learned something.

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