The word Pharmakon is Greek, and it means both “cure” and “poison” at the same time. I’m not sure it’s possible to see that word, “Pharmakon”, without immediately thinking about Big Pharma, and and all the drugs that people are prescribed for everything and nothing at all. That is a good place for your head to be at when you read this book.
The first sentence is: “I was born because a man came to kill my father.” Right away, you know that this book will be heartbreaking, and the story will take it’s time explaining itself, and will not take the straight path to get from question to answer.
You know right away that this book will take you on a long, strange, trip to an unknown destination. Kind of like the experience of a person on a newly prescribed “mood altering” drug.
This book is about a great many things, but, is mostly the story of how and why the youngest child in a family came to be, and what happened after that. His father, Will Friedrich, was a psychologist who was working on a drug that would make people happy. He and another psychologist work together to synthesize the drug, test it on lab rats, and finally test it on human volunteers.
So much hope is pinned on the success of this wonder drug. It makes it all the harder when things go tragically wrong.
This book starts out in suburban America in the 1950’s. Everyone believes that certain things will make them happy. Work hard in school, so you can get a job that pays well. Get married, buy a house, and have a bunch of kids. Keep up with the Jones’s. Then they find out that they are not happy, despite doing everything “right”, and are trying to keep that failure a secret.
Wittenborn does a great job of capturing the way it feels to be depressed, and in denial about it. It comes through loud and clear in the marriage between Will and his wife. There is something profoundly sad about a man who is in a depression, who works on a miracle drug for happiness, who fails. What does he do after that? Fall apart slowly, as each disappointment builds up.
It’s also clear that the children of these parents are not unaffected. All of them are unhappy as well, in different ways. Each one takes their own path, trying to find happiness, which remains largely elusive throughout their entire lives. I tend to relate well to books about screwed up families (having come from one) and I found the Friedrich family to be fascinating.
Themes in this book are very relevant today, despite the fact that the story takes place in the 1950’s and 1960’s. People are still searching for drugs to “fix” everything that is wrong with their moods. Many marriages still fail, and people have children as a way to “fix” the relationship. People still “go postal”. And, let’s not forget, there are still big pharmaceutical companies who are more than willing to make a buck off someone else’s misery (possibly via nefarious means).
This book can be found in the fiction section of bookstores, but, it reads like a memoir. As I was reading, I knew it was fiction, but I couldn’t help but wonder how much was based on real events.
There is a scene where a bunch of parrots spontaneously arrive to camp out in a tree in the Friedrich’s front yard. Suddenly, there they are, in great variety, from out of nowhere.
All the people come, interested in the bright new attractions. Everyone feels a different emotion. To me, this mirrors how people watch those commercials on television about a new drug on the market. You need to read that scene to get the full affect, but I think you get the idea.
This is not a light, happy, little read about being on drugs. It’s also not a psychological text about depression, or a diatribe about the evils of companies who manufacture drugs. In some ways, however, it is about all those things.