Strangers to Ourselves: Unsettled Minds and the Stories That Make Us

Rachel Aviv

In Strangers to Ourselves, a powerful and gripping debut, Rachel Aviv raises fundamental questions about how we understand ourselves in periods of crisis and distress. Drawing on deep, original reporting as well as unpublished journals and memoirs, Aviv writes about people who have come up against the limits of psychiatric explanations for who they are. She follows an Indian woman, celebrated as a saint, who lives in healing temples in Kerala; an incarcerated mother vying for her children’s forgiveness after recovering from psychosis; a man who devotes his life to seeking revenge upon his psychoanalysts; and an affluent young woman who, after a decade of defining herself through her diagnosis, decides to go off her meds because she doesn’t know who she is without them. more

NonfictionPsychologyMental HealthMemoirScienceAudiobookEssaysMental IllnessSelf HelpHealth

288 pages, Hardcover
First published Farrar, Straus and Giroux

4.14

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9588

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1207

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Rachel Aviv

5 books 208 followers

Rachel Aviv joined The New Yorker as a staff writer in 2013. She has written for the magazine about a range of subjects including medical ethics, criminal justice, education, and homelessness. She was a finalist for the 2018 National Magazine Award for Public Interest for “The Takeover,” a story about elderly people being stripped of their legal rights, and she won the 2015 Scripps Howard Award for “Your Son Is Deceased,” a story on police shootings in Albuquerque. Her writing on mental health was awarded a Rosalynn Carter Fellowship, an Erikson Institute Prize for Excellence in Mental Health Media, and an American Psychoanalytic Association Award for Excellence in Journalism. She has taught courses in narrative medicine at Columbia University Medical Center and the City College of New York. In 2010, she received a Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers’ Award. She was a 2019 national fellow at New America.

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Diane S ☔
4804 reviews
14252 followers
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3. 5 starsA sometimes interesting and sometimes not-too-interesting book that follows four people who struggle with mental illness, as well as the author’s experience of anorexia as a child. Starting with some of my perceived negatives before going into the positives, I thought that a couple sections of Strangers to Ourselves just felt boring to read (e. g. , “Ray,” “Bapu”. more


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Elyse Walters
4010 reviews
11177 followers
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This is the best book I've read about mental illness in quite a while. The author herself was the youngest patient to be diagnosed with anorexia and she tells how her life was effected by this diagnosis. She uses actual people, cases that showcase how the treatment of mental illness has changed through the years. From talk therapy to medication and how once medication was thought to solve all problems, many mental health facilities closed, leaving those for whom medication didn't work, floundering. She also shows through her cases that the one diagnosis for all, doesn't in fact fit all. more


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Book Clubbed
148 reviews
196 followers
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Audiobook…. read by Andi Arndt …. 7 hours and 41 minutes “Strangers to Ourselves” makes sense. It’s comprehensible, clearly articulated, well researched, and gives a fresh view on understanding the history of mental illness, with real stories from real people. This is one of the best books I’ve read on this topic ‘ever’. more


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Petra on hiatus but getting better.Happy New 2024!
2457 reviews
34693 followers
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An astute, informative, tender-hearted balm for all the feckless social media conversations about mental health. It does seem that our current milieu is obsessed with mental illness labels. Labels can be helpful, for sure, and naming a previously perplexing set of symptoms can be empowering. Unfortunately, in my personal experience, labels tend to obfuscate the harder, more tedious work of making the mind an ally. But, in our age of convenience, labels lead to a diagnosis, a diagnosis leads to pills, and pills lead to the hope of a quick fix. more


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Meike
1642 reviews
3424 followers
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The author becomes anorexic at 6 and is admitted to hospital. When she becomes much better and is desperate to get out of hospital, when she picks her nose, she sticks the boogers right back up, so she won't be even a fraction of an ounce down. That shows you that the author is open, overshares almost (but in a good way), has a sense of humour and has been there herself. There is a story of an Indian lady, a religious extremist or a schizophrenic or both, whose story is quite cinematic. Riches to the street, through mental institutions and eventually a modification of herself enough to live in a house at least. more


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William2
780 reviews
3263 followers
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An excellent non-fiction debut about the connection between mental illness and (self) narration: How does the way patients and doctors talk about, frame and interpret psychological conditions affect our understanding and treatment of these medical phenomena. And Aviv is not only talking about stigma; rather, she presents case studies illuminating how people and their surroundings have dealt with their diagnoses and how that affected their lives in a myriad of ways. The whole book is framed by the author's own experience: The introduction tells us how she was hospitalized for anorexia at six years old, thus becoming the country's youngest patient with an eating disorder, the last chapter tells the very different story of one of her teenage fellow patients with the same affliction. In between, we hear the stories of four people who suffered from different conditions under particular circumstances, at different times and in different cultures: E. g. more


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Vincent Scarpa
592 reviews
162 followers
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Beyond brilliant and utterly heartbreaking. Yet not without its antecedents, which go largely unmentioned here. . more


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Flo
321 reviews
151 followers
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Rachel Aviv has long been my favorite staff writer at The New Yorker, so I was eager to read this book from the second I heard it was coming into the world. It did not disappoint on any account. Her writing/reportage is as insightful, human, and complex as it has always been, and is suffused with a curiosity that has everything to do with empathy. A terrific read. . more


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Lisa Vegan
2825 reviews
1268 followers
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Fascinating narratives about mental health. I don't know if the conclusions have scientific value, but these are good stories. more


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Camelia Rose (on hiatus)
723 reviews
99 followers
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I really liked this book. My primary feeling/thought when reading each of the stories:Rachel: confusionRay: despairBapu: irritationNaomi: outrageLaura: anger and fearHava: sadnessI’ve been more in the mood for fiction than non-fiction but I’ve been reading a lot of non-fiction books. This non-fiction book was such an entertaining and easy read and it was also smart and well written. It was so engaging that it was harder to put down than my very good children’s mystery series comfort read book. It’s been a long time since I’ve read a book like this. more


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Gaetano Venezia
341 reviews
35 followers
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A friend and I attended Rachel Aviv’s talk about her book, Strangers to Ourselves: Unsettled Minds and the Stories That Make Us, at the National Book Festival in September 2022. I was moved by the author’s personal story and impressed by her careful observations of mental illness patients. Strangers to Ourselves is one of the best books about mental illness I’ve ever read. Rachel Aviv was diagnosed with anorexia at the age of 6. Aviv’s doctor blamed the illness on her parents’ chaotic divorce. more


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Emma Deplores Goodreads Censorship
1211 reviews
1366 followers
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Idiosyncratic AnecdoteI don’t get the hype. The writing is unobtrusive and good; none of the musings or conclusions are obviously wrong. But somehow the case studies don’t add up to anything useful or insightful for mental health in general. These aren't the stories that make most of us—even the mentally ill. A story repeats in the case studies: early treatment of mental illness is filtered through psychiatry, the middle of the patient’s life sees the rise of pharmaceutical and medicalized therapy via anti-depressants and a cascade of other pills, patient’s later lives sees the tide turning somewhat against over-medicalizing mental illness—they gradually go off some or all their medications and learn to cope with the sharper edges of reality. more


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Jennifer Welsh
270 reviews
289 followers
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4. 5 starsA fabulous, empathetic book that tells the stories of six people dealing with mental illness, about their lives and how they understand their distress and the various ways the system worked or didn’t work for them. Aviv is an excellent storyteller, and though this book is short it’s very meaty—she evidently considered writing a book entirely about each of the people profiled, and packs so much in here that I can see it, without feeling that this format gave them short shrift. This book is probably the best example I’ve read of an author writing about mental illness in someone other than themselves (she does include herself, but she isn’t the focus) yet keeping the focus firmly on the person, not the illness. Illness—or distress manifested or understood as illness (it’s not as bright a line as we might believe)—is part of each story, but they’re all still individuals and the author is most interested in how they understand themselves. more


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Ashley Peterson
226 reviews
46 followers
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3. 5, RTCIntensely detailed case studies of people’s lives to make points about mental health and how we must see it in context. There’s fascinating stuff in here, but it has to be weeded out–I can’t imagine anyone enjoying this unless they enjoy academic or psychological case studies. Here are some of the issues examined that I found interesting:1) How the medical field and diagnosis can generalize to the point where one can learn unhealthy behaviors from others in treatment centers, much like prisoners can learn how to become better criminals from their environment. 2) How understanding individual nuance is much more therapeutic than diagnosis. more


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aPriL does feral sometimes
1970 reviews
452 followers
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Strangers to Ourselves: Unsettled Minds and the Stories That Make Us by Rachel Aviv explores the different ways in which people try to make sense of mental illness, both on an individual and societal level. The book tells the story of six different people who experienced mental illness, including the sociocultural factors that shaped those experiences. One of these stories is of the author's own experience of being hospitalized at age six for anorexia nervosa. The author is a writer for The New Yorker, and her journalistic background is very apparent in the stories she tells. Of the other five individuals whose stories were told in the book, two of them were still alive and directly interviewed by the author. more


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Claire Reads Books
142 reviews
1401 followers
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The title describes the book spot on. Rachel Aviv, the author of ‘Strangers to Ourselves’, at the age of 6 years old became anorexic. She thinks that because of her youth, anorexia was a temporary experience. But she met others while she was in treatment (she was the youngest one) for whom anorexia was a chronic mental health condition they struggled against most of their lives. Having experienced a mental illness and observing others with mental illness interested her in the subject. more


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Terry ~ Huntress of Erudition
615 reviews
105 followers
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3. 5⭐️ I picked this up sort of on a whim after seeing Rachel Aviv in conversation with Elif Batuman earlier this year, and after a friend spoke highly of Aviv’s writing for The New Yorker. I found it to be an interesting exploration of different approaches to mental illness (and the limits and biases of those approaches) across time, geography, and demographics. And while the individual case studies here were very compelling, Aviv is, perhaps unsurprisingly, at her most reflective and probing toward the end of the book, when looking at cases of two white women whose experiences with psychiatry and medication more closely parallel her own. Some of the other chapters feel more like a recounting of medical and personal histories, and I wish Aviv had infused more analysis into those sections to make the whole book feel more cohesive. more


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Bonnie G.
1440 reviews
277 followers
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I am not sure what to make of this book - A 6 year old girl is diagnosed with anorexia. A woman stops taking her meds because she can't remember what she is like without them. A successful doctor disintegrates into depression and spends the next 30 years writing a memoir without any apparent insight into what he was writing about. A woman is obsessed with her religion and her writing is considered divinely inspired. She eventually abandons her family and tries to go to a Hindu monastery. more


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Matt Quann
677 reviews
398 followers
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This is so spectacularly good. I don't think I have read another book that looks at mental illness from different perspectives. How can we define sanity from a very particular POV and apply it to people from entirely different cultures. Do we medicate and modify people's behavior to fit a White, Western, male perspective defining appropriate behavior. This concept of normal being a neutral state is rubbish. more


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theresa
84 reviews
147 followers
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I really go with the flow when choosing a new nonfiction read. A review, sufficient hype or, in this case, a podcast can drive me towards my next non-fiction pick. Today, Explained had a great episode where Aviv was interviewed discussing the history behind today's uptick in antidepressant usage. It was a compelling topic and one that serves as a guidepost to the rest of Aviv's book where questioning our current approaches and understand of mental health is at the forefront. Though relatively short, Strangers to Ourselves covers a lot of ground and ideas in four case studies. more


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Rohini Murugan
135 reviews
21 followers
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“it’s like trying to explain what a bark sounds like to someone who’s never heard of a dog” damn omg this shit was so good lol what the fuck. i was hesitant going into this bc sometimes i feel like case studies feel exploitative but i really appreciated how the author weaved in her own experience & intentionally chose from such a wide diversity culturally across the spectrum. i can tell how much the author cared about bringing these stories to light & i appreciated that intentionality a lot. i hope people read this book, i thoroughly enjoyed it :’) i will also add that i do personally relate to this heavily bc i know how important storytelling has been to my own recovery & healing, esp as a young woman of color who didn’t know anyone else with similar struggles at the time. i have often struggled w my impulsive decision to write abt my journey and diagnosis publicly, as it has impacted the trajectories of my own intimate relationships. more


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Mehrsa
2235 reviews
3637 followers
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Reading this book as a cognitive scientist in training, I was left with more questions than the existing philosophical conundrums that me and my brain like to have fun on the side with - side effects include disturbed sleep and anxiety. It was a journey. A journey through the lives of four humans whose lives were forever altered because their brains were a little different. I say that their brains were different and not abnormal, because to categorize something as abnormal, one has to define what is normal, and that is not a trivial definition in neuroscience. Which brings me to the questions I was left with when I closed my Kindle - What does a "normal" brain look like. more


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Rennie
350 reviews
68 followers
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Very well written. Deeply complex and very insightful. . more


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Emily Carlin
346 reviews
36 followers
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I actually liked this a lot, I think especially Naomi’s story was very affecting and well told, incorporating important social contexts and systems without understanding of which would make it difficult to have sympathy for her. But this lacked something unifying, or maybe I was just missing what exactly that was. more


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Grace
2919 reviews
162 followers
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Stunning, as expected. Having a feeling where I’m like, “I love this so much and _because_ I love it so much I also think it could have been better” …. like compared to all books, this is a great one. But zooming in on the internal world of this book as well as Rachel Aviv as a writer, I think this could have gone a lot harder. eg I wish it was 5x longer. more


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Ali
251 reviews
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Really interesting book that tells the stories of several very different people with different mental illnesses, exploring their relationships with themselves, others, their illness, and the medical (or in one case, religious) establishment which is partly what gives them language upon which to structure said understanding. An ambitious undertaking, and while what was presented here was really thought-provoking, it felt like it really only scratched the surface. As is inevitable in a book like this, I found some of the stories much more compelling than others, but I appreciated the diversity throughout. On the whole, I found this to be a worthwhile read. more


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Turkey Hash
194 reviews
36 followers
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Great storytelling on mental illnesses based on six case studies detailed with individual challenges starting with author’s her own. However stories are meandering and no overarching theme between cases —message between lines is mostly anti meds or current psychiatric practice. . more


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Sandra
104 reviews
18 followers
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Incredible - review to come (possibly) . more


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Corvus
651 reviews
191 followers
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Rachel Aviv stellt hier 6 Menschen (inkl. sich selbst) mit Diagnosen psychischer Erkrankungen vor. Jedes Kapitel ist dem Leben und der Erkrankung einer der Personen gewidmet. Es ist hier gelungen wirklich ganz besonders spannende Fallbeispiele auszusuchen, anhand derer die Zuverlässigkeit von Diagnosen und psychologischer Erkenntnisse oder Annahmen in Frage gestellt werden. Können Patienten in Indien eins zu eins betrachtet und behandelt werden wie in den USA. more


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I plan to write a longer review later, but this book was something I appreciated, even needed. I recognized and personally related to many things and it gave me a better understanding of someone I am close to who is currently in psychosis hell with likely dementia creeping in as well. The experiences and analyses of race are pretty great and extremely lacking in most general books like this that aren't specifically about race. I really like how uncertain it is, how unconfident it is in some overarching simplistic answer to the complicated world of our minds and vice versa. more


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