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Exploring the Gray Areas of Human Identity: Rachel Aviv’s Strangers to Ourselves

As a young girl, Rachel Aviv was admitted to a hospital ward where she crossed paths with a fellow patient. Their lives intertwined and fell away, but the remains of her youth still cling to her.

Now, Aviv’s contributions to The New Yorker as a staff writer are as diverse as they are impressive. From medical ethics to education, psychiatry to criminal justice, her portfolio speaks to her exceptional skill in capturing the human experience.

Her journalistic prowess has earned her numerous accolades, including being twice named a finalist for the National Magazine Award for Public Interest. In 2022, she won the National Magazine Award for Profile Writing.

Cementing her status as a journalist of the highest caliber, Aviv’s debut book, Strangers to Ourselves, proves to be a masterful exploration of mental health that deftly weaves together personal, lived realities and the stories of five individuals grappling with mental illness in different cultural and political contexts.

She delves into the deep recesses of the human psyche during times of turmoil and anguish.

“Aviv’s immersive storytelling and rigorous research provide readers with a rare glimpse into the complicated interplay between mental health and society.”

With insightful reporting and exclusive access to intimate journals and memoirs, Aviv’s writing brings to light the stories of those who were disillusioned by conventional psychiatric explanations of their identities.

Aviv’s immersive storytelling and rigorous research provide readers with a rare glimpse into the complicated interplay between mental health and society.

The relationships and communities we belong to are just as critical to our mental well-being as our own thoughts.

Through the pages of this riveting read, you will encounter a revered Indian woman who resides in holy temples in Kerala, a mother imprisoned by psychosis, now seeking forgiveness from her children, a man driven by vengeance against his psychoanalysts, and a wealthy young woman who struggles to define herself beyond her diagnosis, eventually deciding to go off her medications in a bid to uncover her true self.

In one particularly illuminating section, Aviv recounts the legal showdown between two competing approaches to mental illness, psychoanalysis and pharmaceutical treatment, through the story of a physician named Ray who sought help for his depression in 1979.

Strangers to Ourselves is not only a fascinating exploration of mental health but a call to action to reconsider our perceptions of mental illness and its causes. 

Aviv’s work challenges readers to embrace a more nuanced understanding of the human experience and to recognize the complex ways in which our society shapes our mental health.

As Aviv herself notes, “Mental illness is caused by an interplay between biological, genetic, psychological, and environmental factors.”

Strangers to Ourselves is a thoughtful, compassionate exploration of this interplay and a reminder of the importance of empathy and understanding in our shared struggle to navigate the complexities of the human mind.

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