That's How the Light Gets In: Memoir of a Psychiatrist

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9781400046058: That's How the Light Gets In: Memoir of a Psychiatrist
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Susan Rako seemed to have it all. She was a piano prodigy at eight, a highly intelligent teenager focused on academics and determined to study medicine, and then a wife, mother, and M.D., all before thirty. But she knew at her core that her spirit was clouded by despair. Dr. Rako was drawn to the study and practice of psychiatry as a seeker of truth about herself and others, and as much to free herself as to be of help to her patients. Dr. Rako was in her forties before years of therapy both given and received freed her to explore her innate and broad-based creativity. A well-respected Boston psychiatrist, Susan Rako has also become a pioneering expert on women s reproductive health and a writer whose incisive intelligence enables her to pierce through clutter to deeper meaning. In That s How the Light Gets In, she gives us important life lessons through example. What she has learned, through decades of experience as a trusted psychiatrist who has helped hundreds of people and through her own self-exploration and therapy is distilled in a lyrically wrought memoir that truly does illuminate that which makes us human and makes life an adventure of magic and mystery. That s How the Light Gets In is an intelligent and intensely personal story from a highly respected doctor, author, and advocate for women s health issues. Dr. Rako s insightful stories of self, family, friends, patients, and colleagues bear witness to the power of discovering and standing to one s truth. Susan Rako will inspire you to look within yourself and acknowledge your deepest ambitions, develop your own imagination, and learn to breakthrough the boundaries and limitations that each of us places on ourselves. That s How the Light Gets In will inspire you to live the life you ve always wanted to live the life of your dreams.

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About the Author:

Susan Rako, M.D., is the acclaimed author of two previous books, The Hormone of Desire and No More Periods? Beginning with education at Wellesley College and Albert Einstein College of Medicine, followed by specialty training in psychiatry at Harvard s Massachusetts Mental Health Center, Dr. Rako established, more than thirty years ago, an active psychiatric practice in Boston that she continues to serve and to enjoy. In 2003 she founded the educational nonprofit, Women s Health on Alert, Inc. (WHOA). On a parallel track with her medical work, in 1988 Dr. Rako earned an M.S. in film production from Boston University College of Communication. In May 2005, as executive producer, she brought the Boston premier of the play Hysterics to the Lyric Stage. Dr. Rako s work has been featured in countless publications, including the New York Times and USA Today, and on Today, Dateline NBC, and BBC World Today. She may be contacted through her website, susanrako.com.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

One: Becoming

Boundaries in the large extended family of my childhood were always something of a problem. Respect for separateness was not a birthright. Responsibility for self was not a hallmark. One of my cousins once said that she and her mother were “stuck together like a Popsicle.” Epoxy resin is more like it. Popsicles at least melt.

Another sort of boundary had been stretched when my great-uncle married his niece. Think of it . . . my mother’s oldest sister, Rose, married her mother’s brother. My understanding is that they met when Rosie was ten or eleven or so and he was several years older and newly emigrated to America from Russia, where all the family of that generation had been born. Eventually they fell in love, and they married.

My mother told me, with no comment and apparently no thought on the matter (though what she really thought about this and many another matter remained a mystery to me), “In the Jewish religion, an uncle can marry a niece, but an aunt can’t marry a nephew.” At the time, I thought that there was something odd, and maybe unfair, about this distinction.

I was a little girl who tended to think a lot, trying to figure out what was going on in my mother’s head, in my family, and in the world around me. The Second World War figured large. Some decades later I put it together that the day I was born, Labor Day 1939, was just one day after Winston Churchill declared war on Germany. During my early childhood in Worcester, Massachusetts, the kitchen radio was always on with the war news about “the Allies” and a lot of other words I didn’t understand, and with patriotic jingles encouraging us to buy war bonds.

Save up your pennies, and soon you’ll have a nickel.

Save up your nickels and soon you’ll have a dime.

We love our country, the stars make a banner

(“The stars make a banner . . .” that’s how I sang it. I think now that those words probably were: our star-spangled banner.)

Soldiers and sailors in uniform were everywhere. Union Station was flooded with servicemen carrying lumpy duffel bags on their shoulders. In our neighborhood, the wail of air-raid sirens was a signal for the grown-ups to pull down the black window shades and turn off the lights. During one air-raid drill, my mother told me that she couldn’t smoke her cigarette on the porch, because “the Germans might see the burning butt and know where to bomb us.” Another time, in a bizarrely desperate effort to discourage me from eating what she considered junk food, she warned me off the State Line potato chips my Dad sold in his grocery store by telling me that “the Germans ground up glass in them.” I wondered why my dad would sell them to anyone, and worried in particular about my friend Kathryn Rita Reilley, who ate those potato chips too. The war was a confusing, distant, and at the same time omnipresent element in my early life.

In clear contrast, that thing about Auntie Rosie being married to her uncle Bob seemed pretty natural. Their three kids, Dorothy (who I knew as Duchess), Noah (Sonny or Son), and Malcolm (Mally), were my favorite older cousins. When I was a little older, I figured out that Uncle Bob was both my uncle and my great-uncle, and of course I figured out that in addition to being their father, Uncle Bob was their great-uncle as well.

“Son” was short for “sunshine,” the light his birth brought into the family soon after the sudden death of his maternal grandfather Noah, for whom he was named. I never even wondered how Duchess got her name. I was two or three when we moved in with the family for a while, and Duchess was twenty—tall, beautiful in an exotic sort of way, and with an alluring mole on her cheek, like Elizabeth Taylor. I remember standing at the bathroom door, watching her dress her hair—puffing a pompadour secured by curved hair combs above her forehead, and, at the sides and the back, pinning the ends over a U-shaped loop of sausagelike padding called a “rat,” this part of the hairdo secured by a fancy, decorated string hairnet. Rodent metaphors extended to the rat-tailed comb, whose skinny end she used to tuck the hair around the “rat.” My straight, thick brown hair was in a Dutch clip, sort of like what Hans Brinker might have worn, and I was mesmerized by Duchess’s coiffure—rat and all.

At that time, my cousin Son was sixteen, and Mally a couple of years younger. Once in a while the two of them would get into some horseplay, with which Auntie Rosie didn’t have much patience. She’d chase them around the house, flailing ineffectually with Uncle Bob’s belt and yelling for them to quit it. I loved the excitement. Having a little girl in the house for a couple of months must have been more of a novelty than a nuisance for them, as they were very kind to me. Imagine my sixteen-year-old boy cousin creating magical adventures for me in a large clump of lilac bushes in the backyard, where he pushed aside the branches with their shiny green heart-shaped leaves and cautioned me to step carefully over the gnarled roots, whispering for me to watch for the gremlins who lived there. Although they never actually made an appearance, I knew exactly what they looked like.

Years later I realized that my parents weren’t much older than Duchess or Son. Auntie Rosie was the second oldest of eight children, my mother the youngest and only nine when Duchess was born. Those nine years did seem to constitute a generation, though. I always felt that Duchess was much like an older sister to me.

My mother had met my dad in Springfield, Massachusetts, in 1937 or so, when she was working as a traveling demonstrator for Sears and Roebuck (a notably independent job for a woman in those days) and he was managing something I heard as “growerzoutlet,” which must have been a produce market. I knew my dad’s workplace had something to do with food, but I never knew exactly what it was or imagined how its name might be spelled.

Virtually a hush-hush family secret: not until they went to take out a marriage license did my mother learn that her prospective husband was nearly two years younger than she—born in 1915 to her 1913. This small difference in age, compounded by the dissembling, became a condensing point for the atmosphere of disappointment and distrust that had, perhaps since her father dropped dead of a heart attack when she was twelve, clouded my mother’s experience of life.

My parents began married life in Springfield, where I was born and where we lived until I was about two. Then my father was offered a job in Connecticut. This was trouble, since the tacit limit of acceptable distance from Worcester and my mother’s family had been Springfield. The family pull—that we move not farther away but back to Worcester—prevailed.

Memory, for me, begins at this point, in Worcester at my grandmother’s house, when we moved in with her and my aunt, uncle, and cousins—all nine of us sharing the top-floor apartment in the three-decker on Houghton Street. My parents slept on the couch in the living room, I think that my crib was in the dining room, and I know that a cardboard carton full of my toys and books was in the boys’ room. The sides of that box came up to my armpits, and I remember the sharpness of the box edge on my upper chest when I leaned over into it to reach my Betsy Wetsy.

The dominant presence in the household, such that Auntie Rosie, Uncle Bob, and their kids were said to be living with her rather than the other way around, was my grandmother, Bobba. Never mind that Uncle Bob paid the rent; it was always “Bobba’s house.” Enclaves of extended family lived or worked nearby. A few blocks away in different directions were Bobba’s two sisters, Boonie and Tanteh, with their families, and one of her brothers, Uncle Ike, owned the corner grocery store where my mother bought cigarettes and where I could get an ice cream.

Auntie Rosie didn’t buy much food at Uncle Ike’s, though. She and my mother shopped at the Jewish kosher markets on Water Street. I loved to go with them. All that hustle and bustle, sound, color, and smells. “The chickenik,” Josephs’ chicken store, had live chickens in doweled crates stacked up against the wall. The men behind the counter wore hats—skullcaps or fedoras, sometimes with the front brim pushed up, the better to see. Josephs’ stank of burned chicken feathers. I used to pass the time waiting for our turn making designs with my shoe in the sawdust scattered on the floor to collect dirt and spills.

Pulda’s kosher fish market sold only fish with scales, of course—no shrimp, lobster, clams, or catfish—and was a different kind of stinky. Sometimes we would skip Cohen’s kosher meat market, because they delivered. I remember my mother on the telephone: “Mitzi, I want a good brisket. Not a double, a single.” On Water Street, we always shopped at Whitman’s creamery, where the lox was sliced only by hand, and where my aunt bought farmer cheese, “a nice whitefish,” grocer- ies, and a block of halvah. Smoked fish, but no other stinky smells here. And then: Weintraub’s Delicatessen. My mouth waters remembering the aromas and flavors there: hot pastrami, corned beef, pickled tongue, half-sour pickles, and sour green tomatoes. Palisades of salamis hung above the men behind the counter spooning mustard into cones of brown waxed paper to accompany whatever we bought to go. Our last stop might be Lieberman’s Bakery—fragrant with pumpernickel and cornmeal-dusted rye breads, and with ...

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