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 Drawing on reporting as well as unpublished journals and memoirs, Aviv writes about people who have come up against the limits of psychiatric explanations for who they are.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.
One of the pleasures of this book is its resistance to a clear and comforting verdict, its desire to dwell in unknowing. At every step, Aviv is nuanced and perceptive, probing cultural differences and alert to ambiguity, always filling in the fine-grain details. Extracting a remarkable amount of information from archival material as well as living interview subjects, she brings all of these people to life, even the two whom she never met. I zipped through each essay—propelled by curiosity—yet needed to take breaks between them, both to recover from the intensity of the human experience described and to sit with the implications of the argument Aviv is building, which suggests that it may be more harmful than helpful to see yourself the way doctors see you ... Approved insight, the kind that informs 'correct' narratives, exerts real and lasting power, whether damaging (Aviv’s focus) or healing, as is often the case. But Aviv is more preoccupied with insight in the philosophical sense—finding order and meaning in one’s own story—which is anything but straightforward or static ... Aviv reminds us that Who am I now? is less a momentary question than a koan that suffuses every life, an invitation to revisit and revise the conundrum, whoever you are and whether or not you have a diagnosis. All of Aviv’s subjects, herself included, live at the mercy of social and medical constructions, and yet strive to shape and reshape their irreducible, protean selves.