Aviv raises fundamental questions about how we understand ourselves in periods of crisis and distress. Drawing on reporting as well as unpublished journals and memoirs, Aviv writes about people who have come up against the limits of psychiatric explanations for who they are.
... like so many of the stories in this intimate and revelatory book, the truth of it is real but incomplete ... Aside from her candid reflections in the prologue and the epilogue, Aviv mostly hangs back, even though her own experience primes us — as maybe it primed her — to be alert to how stories can clarify as well as distort the mental distress that a person is going through ... Aviv’s narrative is so attuned to subtlety and complexity that any summary risks making it sound like she’s doing something she’s not. This isn’t an anti-psychiatry book — Aviv is too aware of the specifics of any situation to succumb to anything so sweeping and polemical. What she does is recognize the multiplicity of stories that attach to her subjects’ experiences, exploring a variety of interpretations instead of jumping at the impulse to explain them away ... delicately balances two truths that prove remarkably difficult to hold in tandem. We all have our own minds, our own experiences, our own suffering; we are also social creatures who live among others, and social forces have at least some bearing on how we understand who we are ... a book-length demonstration of Aviv’s extraordinary ability to hold space for the 'uncertainty, mysteries and doubts' of others.
... written with an astonishing amount of attention and care ... Aviv’s triumphs in relating these journeys are many: her unerring narrative instinct, the breadth of context brought to each story, her meticulous reporting. Chief among these is her empathy, which never gives way to pity or sentimentality. She respects her subjects, and so centers their dignity without indulging in the geeky, condescending tone of fascination that can characterize psychologists’ accounts of their patients’ troubles. Though deeply curious about each subject, Aviv doesn’t treat them as anomalous or strange ... Aviv’s daunted respect for uncertainty is what makes Strangers to Ourselves distinctive. She is hyperaware of just how sensitive the scale of the self can be.
Stands out by virtue of how successful she is in the attempt. In fact at moments it feels quite far from the fray, perhaps because...her pieces, even her sentences, tend to conclude ambivalently, and are driven throughout by a curiosity that resists its own moral and rhetorical instincts, forging narrative ones instead ... Texts that appear in Strangers are rich ground for layered readings: poetic, humorous, impassioned, or else curiously vacant ... In trying to articulate what makes Aviv’s writing so generative and particular I keep gravitating to her style, unusual for a reporter or essayist exploring the 'psychic hinterlands,' as Aviv puts it, 'where language tends to fail' ... I am impressed by Aviv’s deft manipulation of studies, academic treatises, doctor’s notes, and interviews, but I am moved by her commitment to weaving uncertainty, mystery, and devotion into these narratives as well. It’s writing that aspires to spare nobody the anguish of its ambivalence, and yet helping to illuminate a subject’s particular suffering or ecstasy can be a gift. At its best the words wield this dimensionality like a threshold, which I envision not as a window onto a subject’s soul, but like a door that stays open for anyone wishing to be welcomed as a stranger.