Book Review / Unlike the Heart by Nicola Redhouse

“Unlike the Heart by Nicola Redhouse is a raw depiction of one woman’s struggle with postnatal depression and anxiety, her reliance on psychoanalysis, and her eventual exploration of various fields which seek to study and treat mental conditions.” – Myra Opdyke reviews Unlike the Heart by Nicola Redhouse.

“Which of me was the real me? The one who woke with terror in the pit of my guts? Or the one who could enjoy a bowl of porridge once the terror was annihilated? In some sense it was moot. I couldn’t get myself to Dr Parkes’s rooms each week without those pills.”

Unlike the Heart by Nicola Redhouse is a raw depiction of one woman’s struggle with postnatal depression and anxiety, her reliance on psychoanalysis, and her eventual exploration of various fields which seek to study and treat mental conditions.

The first section gruellingly delves into the author’s experience of pregnancy and ensuing mental illness. In the process, Nicola Redhouse quickly transitions the text to be less about her symptoms and more about her own psychoanalytic understanding of those symptoms.

Raised in South Africa to psychoanalyst parents, Redhouse used psychoanalytic theory to reflect on her past in an effort to uncover an underlying truth about herself and why she suffered as she did. Through self-reflection, often stated as a causative factor for her future experiences, the reader learns about Redhouse’s family, her childhood, and how “The names of the great analytic thinkers – Freud, Klein, Bowlby, Bion – had lined both [her] parents’ bookshelves.”

We learn how she had suffered severe separation anxiety in her earlier life, almost starved herself, and had a fraught relationship with her mother. She reveals how “Countless times I had been so unhinged with rage at [my mother] that I had run away from our house into the park down the road, where I had wept and repeatedly punched my hand into the soft part of my arm. I wanted a bruise to appear as a physical marker of the inexplicable opposition we posed to each other.”

Redhouse has an analytical view of herself and her parents, saying that “In all people, we recognised, was the capacity for both the utterly ordinary and the curiously dark. We knew it in ourselves. My quest to trace what had happened to me as a new mother – grave and in some ways as humiliating as I found it – was lit by a kind of excitement too; I was a puzzle as available to forensic dissection as a murderer on Law & Order.”

Given the psychoanalysis-as-infallible stance of the first section of the book, it feels like a long-awaited release when Redhouse does begin to question this method of dealing with her problems. The text transitions to a kind of literature review concerning treatments for mental illness, from pills and neuroscience to various kinds of analytic therapy.

In this section, Unlike the Heart analyses psychoanalysis itself and its use, history, and empirical basis. Redhouse takes the reader on her journey exploring the options open to her and the therapeutic method to which she has given so much, saying, “…I had been thinking lately how for nearly a quarter of my life I had given myself over to psychoanalysis, to understanding my mind on the couch of Dr Parkes, an act so personal and subjective and bound to language that it seemed to exist in a different galaxy to the certainty and measurability of medicine and science.”

This process of beginning to question not herself and the root of her symptoms on a couch, but instead to question the very method of treatment she undertook, marks a turning point in the book. Redhouse begins to scan the scholarly research about mental illness, while also asking herself why she cares so much about understanding her own mind. This becomes a sort of philosophical exploration amidst a medical one.

One particularly interesting aspect of this book is how Redhouse’s experiences and her exploration of the research exposes the dearth of research into female-related medical conditions. Redhouse reveals women suffer because their mental illness has not been adequately researched, and there is less knowledge of successful treatment plans and therapy, particularly in the case of postpartum depression.

As Redhouse becomes more secure in her beliefs of what works and why, she develops a lighter tone. Towards the end of the book, Redhouse offers a ray of hope for suffering mothers by saying, “On the plus side, the research says that, given the high plasticity of the human maternal brain, the pregnancy and postpartum period may be one in which the maternal brain will also be highly responsive to positive interventions, such as cognitive behavioural therapy.”

Unlike the Heart is a raw account of the way that postpartum mental illness can affect a person, their thoughts, decisions, views, and physical health. Redhouse provides an open analysis of her journey to not only find a way to help herself, but to understand why she wants certain methods to work as she tries to make peace with her situation.

Originally from Canberra, Myra is a Sydney-based author whose writing has been published in the Sydney University Anthology. Her interests range from environmental science to socio-legal research, and these themes are reflected in her writing.

Myra was the 2018 project and communications intern at Writing NSW. 


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