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by Francine Cournos
Review by Christian Perring, Ph.D. on Nov 12th 2002
Francine Cournos memoir of her
life focuses mainly on her childhood and the effects the loss of her parents
had on her. She was born in the 1940s, with
an older brother and a younger sister; her family lived in the South Bronx, and
her father died unexpectedly when she was three. Her mother developed breast cancer and endured many surgeries,
but her health degenerated until she died when Couros was just eleven.
Couros has surprisingly vivid
memories of her childhood. After her
fathers death, her mother never talked about him. Her mothers family all lived in the local neighborhood, and her
mothers parents moved in with them for a better financial situation. But after only two years, her Grandpa died
too. Couros whole childhood seemed to
be filled with unexplained and swift disappearances, and it is understandable how
this could have made her fearful about her future. She describes her relationship with her mother in detail, and
remembers how her mother kept working right through her illness, giving herself
injections, breathing hard.
Of course, Couros received little
explanation when her mother died, and she was the one who eventually had to
explain to her little sister that their mother had died. The children stayed living with their
grandma, but the old woman was not able or willing to keep up the
responsibility. Within two years, the
children were separated, and the family put Cournos and her sister into foster
care. She reflects with amazement that
her family was ready to do this, and it is no surprise that she feels somewhat
bitter about their action. Her new
foster mother was Erma, and Cournos had a stormy relationship with her. They lived in Lynbrook, Long Island, and her
foster father Jack commuted to work in Queens.
Cournos was close to her sister but became distant from her
brother. Once she went to college, she
virtually lost touch with her siblings for many years.
When she left high school for City
College, located in Harlem, Cournos soon moved into her own apartment. She had always been an excellent student,
and she knew she wanted to become a doctor.
She achieved her ambition despite the sexism of the profession and the very
few women in medical school. She married at 23 but was divorced within a few
years. Eventually she became a
psychiatrist. Although she peppers her
narrative of her past with scenes from her future, seeing patients who remind
her of her former self, she says little about her profession. She does say that she felt a sort of
communion with her patients, and would be exhausted by their emotional
problems. Nevertheless, she was drawn
to care for the sickest, poorest patients whom other psychiatrists were often
uninterested in, and when she was in a position of power, she fought hard for
those in her care.
After a period on her own, Cournos
married and had a child. Her life
became stable and fulfilled. Yet when
her daughter was not yet two, Cournos developed a deep depression. She went into psychotherapy, and her
therapist suggested that she eventually felt safe enough to let herself feel
the anger, fear and sadness she was not allowed to express as a child. Her depression lasted less than a year, leaving
one day in the middle of winter in 1980 one of the few welcome sudden
disappearances in her life. A couple of
years later she went into prolonged psychoanalysis, which she found very
helpful, helping a sense of inner peace.
But she still dreaded the return of summers, which brought on unhappy
memories of losses, and traveling to unfamiliar locations. After eight years she also started taking
Prozac, and it took her a long time to find the optimal dosage. Her fears decreased and her psychoanalysis
became richer. Furthermore, her dread
of fantasized disasters virtually stopped.
Even the anniversary day of her mothers death became an opportunity for
her to celebrate her mothers life.
City of One is written well,
and in compressing many facts into a short narrative, it has an admirable
terseness. It would have been
interesting to know more about Cournos view of the mental profession and the
trends and changes over the last decades, but she says enough for the reader to
be able to at least have a sense of her views.
The great strength of the book is to highlight her experience as an
orphan and the way she suffered as a result of her larger familys ineptitude
in taking good care of her. As she
points out in her Prologue, it is more common these days for children to lose
both parents than it was when she was a child, and so there is much to learn
from her memoir. Recommended.
© 2002 Christian Perring. All rights reserved.
Ph.D., is Chair of the Philosophy Department at Dowling College, Long Island.
He is editor of Metapsychology Online Review. His main research is on
philosophical issues in psychiatry. He is especially interested in exploring
how philosophers can play a greater role in public life, and he is keen to help
foster communication between philosophers, mental health professionals, and the