by Laura Waterman; Emeryville, California, Shoemaker and Hoard, 2005, 275 pages, $24
Dr. Gise is clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of Hawaii and staff psychiatrist at the Maui Community Mental Health Center.
The book Losing the Garden is definitely worth reading. From the first page to the last, two questions emerge. How could Laura let her husband kill himself? What would have happened if Laura had acted differently during the two years she knew her husband was going to commit suicide? Laura could have ruined her marriage, alienated her husband, and he would have killed himself anyway, or she could have saved his life. We don't judge her, but as mental health professionals we think we should be able to prevent suicide. Even though we know the ending, Laura makes the story compelling, and we compulsively read a pageturner we can't put down.
Guy Waterman is a bright, talented man who had been a jazz pianist, a political aide on Capitol Hill, and a corporate speech writer in New York City. He and his second wife, Laura, take up a largely successful but extreme form of homesteading in Vermont for 27 years before Guy kills himself. He probably has bipolar disorder. Guy and Laura are bound by their love of climbing and books. Homesteading is a way out. It is the 1970s, "at the height of the back-to-the-land movement." They have a full, if somewhat unusual, life. But would you want to live without running water and have to go to the outhouse when it is 20 below?
In the beginning, the pain is so unendurable. But as we go on, we get used to it, like Laura does. It's so compelling because it's so human. Who hasn't been down-and-out or hard on themselves? We all have a little craziness inside us. This is what makes our work so interesting.
We read this book with some degree of dissociation, splitting, or doubling. We read it as clinicians but also as human beings. Laura makes the tale so accessible. But we can't stop being clinicians.
What is unique about this account is the public, shared experience of suicide. Most suicide is lonely and private and shared only by what the dead one leaves behind. For two years Guy and Laura live with this knowledge until the very last moment.
The book has much more. Guy believes that if you could turn your grownup work into the kind of play you enjoy as a child you could make a satisfying life. And to some extent he does. The book is about climbing, humor, invention, creativity, world history, opera, and classical literature—especially 19th century. It's also a classic case history set against a background of bad experiences with 1950s psychiatry and stigma about mental illness. The story becomes repetitive, but I did not find it boring.
Losing the Garden could be a movie. Though she glamorizes and romanticizes her experiences, Laura generously shares her life at Barra with us so we can get a vicarious thrill, as if we are there. I doubt anyone can read this memoir purely as a clinician.