Some pages into Graeme Macrae Burnet’s latest novel I decided to look up the term Case Study, and this is what I found: “a research approach that is used to generate an in-depth, multi-faceted understanding of a complex issue in its real-life context.” Keeping that definition at the back on my mind, I understood the aptness of the title.
The story is told by GMB, a writer who is fascinated by the work of Collins Braithwaite the “enfant terrible of the so-called anti-psychiatry movement of the 1960s.” GMB stumbled across Braithwaite’s book, Untherapy in a used bookshop, and he finds the book, a collection of case studies to be “salacious, iconoclastic and compelling.” When GMB attempts to research Braithwaite’s work, he finds “scant information” on the internet and disappointingly, the Braithwaite archive at the university of Durham contains just a “couple of cardboard boxes” of manuscripts some newspaper clippings and a few letters. But then GMB receives an email in response to a blog post about Braithwaite. The email is from a man who calls himself Mr. Grey, admits that this is not his real name, and that he has in his possession notebooks written by his cousin. Grey states that the notebooks “contain certain allegations about Braithwaite.” So Mr Grey, refusing to meet GMB, posts the notebooks. GMB reads them and the content of these notebooks constitute a large portion of the novel.
So now to the notebooks: a young woman named Veronica visited Braithwaite a number of times. She later committed suicide and Braithwaite’s notes pertaining to Veronica appear in his book, Untherapy, but he cloaks her identity by calling her Dorothy. Dorothy’s sister blames Braithwaite for her sister’s suicide, so she too begins visiting Braithwaite assuming the name Rebecca Smythe. And Rebecca is not a happy camper:
In this spirit, I shall begin by stating the facts. The danger to which I have alluded comes in the person of Collins Braithwaite. You will have heard him described in the press as ‘Britain’s most dangerous man’, this on account of his ideas about psychiatry. It is my belief, however, that it is not merely his ideas that are dangerous. I am convinced, you see, that Dr. Braithwaite killed my sister, Veronica. I do not mean that he murdered her in the normal sense of the word, but that he is nonetheless, as responsible for her death as if he had strangled her with his bare hands.
Rebecca, since she is seeking sessions with Braithwaite, decides to appear as a disturbed young woman. But a few pages into her journal, and it’s clear that Rebecca is disturbed. Intriguingly, while ‘Rebecca’ adds a few trivial touches to her pretense of being disturbed (holes in her stockings) in reality it becomes clear the Rebecca has many issues and had a troubled relationship with her now deceased sister. Rebecca finds that her newly created persona offers her a freedom from her usual/daily self. (Here I thought of Belle de Jour–a bit of an extreme example but in essence the same thing.)
The novel explores therapy and the dangers of an unhinged therapist. We all know there are ‘good’ and ‘bad’ doctors, and we know there are ‘good’ and ‘bad’ therapists. Damaged people seeking therapy from an egomaniac of a therapist who seems more interested in flouting the established schools of psychotherapy than actually helping patients is a formula for trouble. Braithwaite is, in many respects, an appalling human being: his treatment of the women in his life for example. Yet he had some interesting ideas:
To embrace the idea that a person is not a single self, but a bundle of personae, all of which should be valued equally.
The novel is set in London in the 1960s and splits between sections of Braithwaite’s bio and Rebecca. The book’s preface and postscript introduce and extend the novel’s amalgam of fact and fiction. The author goes into the term Case Study on his website. Th
Reading this was like watching a prolonged loop of that famous scene from The Lady from Shanghai. –disorienting but you can’t turn your eyes away.