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Psychology professor Kay Redfield Jamison wants to broaden the notion of psychological healing

David Wilson for the Boston

For Kay Redfield Jamison, healing can come from unexpected places.

Her new book “Fires in the Dark: Healing the Unquiet Mind,” which she calls “a kind of love song to psychotherapy,” sprang from the inspiration she found at a dark time. Years ago, when the Johns Hopkins professor of psychology was first diagnosed with the bipolar disorder that she so eloquently wrote about in 1995′s “An Unquiet Mind,” she recalled being so heavily medicated with lithium that “there was a considerable period when I couldn’t really read adult books. And so I went back to all the childhood books that I loved so much.”


It was a time she revisited following the publication of her last book, the Pulitzer-nominated study of the poet Robert Lowell, when she found herself asking: “How do great psychotherapists make you draw upon your own resources to find out what it is that sustains you and keeps you going?”

Recalling her re-immersion in the tales of King Arthur and the Wizard of Oz, she recognized a common theme of adventure, courage, and exploration. “That began to weave its way into healing,” she recalled. “It was not just sitting down in a doctor’s office; it was also getting into the world of tragedy and the world of courage. All these stories where you just realize these are the things that you think about.”

“Fires in the Dark,” which is divided into three parts, starts in the trenches of World War I, specifically with the efforts of healers like psychiatrist W.H.R. Rivers to understand and treat post-traumatic stress disorder (then known as shell shock). Working with his most famous patient, the poet Siegfried Sassoon, he drew on “so many different branches of human knowledge and religion,” said Jamison.

“Prior to the war, Jung and Freud were developing their theories,” she noted. “After the war, partly because of the work of doctors like Rivers, psychotherapy became a part of the practice of doctors.”


Jamison then goes on to examine psychotherapy and other forms of treatment, and ultimately concludes by addressing “the role of the imagination in psychological healing,” tracing therapies for mental illness back through ancient Greek and Egyptian practices.

“We’ve always had psychological suffering,” said Jamison. “What I’m interested in are the common elements of great healing. There was this enormous relationship for the early practitioners of psychological healing between religion and magic and medicine. I’m interested in this much more kind of expansive notion of healing.”

Kay Redfield Jamison will be discussing “Fires in the Dark: Healing the Unquiet Mind” at the Cambridge Public Library, in an event sponsored by Harvard Book Store, on Monday, May 22, at 6 p.m.

Clea Simon is the Somerville-based author most recently of the novel “Hold Me Down.”