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    the story behind the book | kate tuttle

    A biography of the drugs we use to heal minds

    david wilson for the boston globe

    “Blue Dreams: The Science and the Story of the Drugs That Changed Our Lives” is Lauren Slater’s ninth book, and in some ways the most ambitious project the Fitchburg writer has undertaken. “There’s more science writing in this than there has been in my previous books,” Slater said, describing years of research into the history of psychiatric pharmacology. Only after she’d “marinated in all this material,” she said, did Slater begin to write.

    The history she chronicles — a century of attempts to heal mental illness with drugs — is less a tale of scientific certainty than of persistent questions. For one thing, Slater said, although psychiatric medications are “packaged and sold with a scientific story about how and why they work,” the evidence is far from clear.

    “I don’t think we’re really far along in our understanding of the mind or the brain. I think we’re at a pretty primitive place,” she said. “There are very few long-term studies on the side effects of SSRIs [the class of antidepressants that includes Prozac]. You’re entering into uncharted waters with your brain.”

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    Slater, who holds a doctorate in psychology, is also a long-time patient, struggling with depression and obsessive-compulsive disorder — a personal narrative that runs alongside the medical history she explores in the book. Although Slater acknowledges that her intimate experience with the subject informs her work, she says it’s hardly an advantage. “I think I’m a writer despite my mental illness, not because of it,” she said. “If I didn’t have any mental illness to contend with, I’d be on my 16th book.”

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    The book’s extensive research is evident and its subject is serious, but Slater added that she hopes readers are also entertained. “I’d like people to feel that they have read a good story,” she said.

    Slater will read 7 p.m. Thursday at Newtonville Books.

    Kate Tuttle, president of the National Book Critics Circle, can be reached at kate.tuttle@gmail.com.