by Barbara Holland; New York, Bloomsbury, 2005, 310 pages, $24.95
Dr. Feder is the medical director of Behavioral Health Network in Concord, New Hampshire
The book When All the World Was Young is Barbara Holland's memoir of her childhood and teenage years. Most of the book takes place in her white, middle-class, liberal home in Washington, D.C., during the 1940s and early 1950s. Holland is an accomplished writer—this is her 15th book—and a wonderful storyteller. Her beautiful prose and wry wit should make this a quick, absorbing, and enjoyable read for just about anyone. For the mental health care professional, a wealth of jewels is scattered throughout.
Holland gives a palpable description of what the early years of school were like for a girl with learning disabilities in math and music and how they are basically ignored by her teachers and family. She grows up in an era when learning disabilities had not yet been discovered and girls were not supposed to be interested in math anyway. The traditional expectations for women in our society are a pervasive theme in the book. Neither Holland nor her mother fit these expectations well, and it is a source of significant identity confusion and sadness for both of them. Holland is very incisive and convincing in her examination of how these expectations are at odds with basic human needs and desires. As a long-time male chauvinist, I came away from the book with a new-found understanding of sexual equality.
Holland is a master at examining family dynamics, particularly sibling relationships. She gives brilliant descriptions of her relationships with her brothers and sisters and the relationships between her mother and her aunts. Her insights into why everybody behaves the way they do are equally wonderful. The author also has some valuable observations on the origins of personality traits. She gives convincing arguments and examples to show that some are formed by parental behavior (how Holland deals with money) although others seem to be set at birth—life-long friendliness or irritability of specific siblings.
This is also a book about memory. Things Holland is able to recall and recount in astonishing detail contrast interestingly with the things she does not seem to remember much about. Her lack of memory is most notable during her late teenage years when she desperately tries to find a purpose for her life and apparently becomes clinically depressed. Interestingly, what enables her to get well from her depression is not a therapist but getting a job and feeling that she has a purpose and niche in life. As a younger child, how she dealt with the sexual traumas of her life and avoided PTSD is a very valuable lesson in the effective use of intelligence and selective forgetting.
This book can serve as a great resource to help the young twenty- or thirty-something therapist understand the background of their older sixty- or seventy-something patients. The World War II patriotism, the McCarthy and atomic bomb paranoia, and the sexual stereotypes that younger mental health professionals have not experienced are all made to feel very real in the pages of this remarkable memoir.