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Book Forum: Autobiography   |    
All for Love
Am J Psychiatry 2002;159:2130-2131. doi:10.1176/appi.ajp.159.12.2130
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Houston, Tex.

By Ved Mehta. New York, Thunder’s Mouth Press/Nation Books, 2001, 345 pp., $24.95.

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As a longtime reader of The New Yorker, I have always admired the intelligence and clarity of Ved Mehta’s prose. Since leaving The New Yorker, he has been a prolific writer of books, most notably his extraordinary series, Continents of Exile, in which his aim has been to "take subjective experiences and put them into an objective framework, and so avoid the pitfalls of confessional writing" (p. 2). In his recent contribution to this series, he hopes to apply this ambitious agenda to the most elusive of all subjective experiences: love. Before you shrug your shoulders and mutter to yourself that great poets, scientists, and authors have tried and failed for centuries to characterize love, at least give the man a chance. After all, psychiatrists and psychoanalysts have been making similarly quixotic efforts for decades.

Despite his intent to avoid confessional writing, Mehta has provided his readers with a brutally honest—perhaps too honest—account of his affairs of the heart, dating back to his years as a young writer for The New Yorker. The four love affairs that he recounts are poignant and heartbreaking, all the more so because we know he is a man who has been blind since the age of 4, making the courtship process even more complicated. One cannot read the book without thinking of the inevitable aphorism that love is blind. Indeed, the reader encounters one hopeless relationship after another. We can see that an affair is doomed from the beginning, but the author is undaunted in his persistence. In fact, at one point in this vivid personal saga, I realized that I was beginning to experience the book as though I were an analyst listening to a case history: more specifically, a recurring literary "dance" with one lover after another, in which the protagonist is enacting a tragic form of the repetition compulsion without knowing why. About the same time it dawned on me that Mehta was offering one of the most detailed and wrenching descriptions of what it is like to be in a relationship with someone who has borderline psychopathology. Each of the women sings an irresistible siren song inviting him to jump to her rescue and save her from herself. His lovers recount one or another form of childhood trauma that inspires the author to heal them with his love:

If Kilty and Lola had been characters in a novel, and the author had presented me with the coincidence of their both having had dead sisters, who in their different ways continue to haunt them, I would have dismissed it as cheap and impossible. As it was, I was petrified, but then told myself that…with my love I might even be able to help Kilty free herself of the tragic memory. (p. 228)

Mehta tries his best to love each of his elusive women despite their infidelities, deceits, and capriciously impulsive behaviors but finally is defeated and ends up—where else?—on an analyst’s couch.

The cleverness of this memoir’s structure is delightful. After the case history, the last 70 pages or so of the book feature detailed analytic process material that suggests an explanation for the author’s behavior. We must always be skeptical, of course, about how an analysand portrays his or her analyst because these portrayals are colored by transference. Mehta’s analyst is depicted as mocking, aloof, and disconcertingly didactic. Nevertheless, he offers a number of reasonably compelling formulations that help the reader understand the author’s propensity for self-defeating relationships. Mehta analogizes his relationship to his analyst as that of Faust to Mephistopheles (negative transference, anyone?). He also notes, however, that as time went on, his analyst’s persistent interpretive strategy made him realize how his connection to his mother was inexorably undermining his relationships with women. His analyst also helps him see how his denial of blindness had been instrumental in behaviors that were life-threatening, such as taking a date on a wild car ride as an adolescent even though he was totally blind. Unfortunately, an equal number of the analyst’s interventions are depicted as formulaic and unconvincing.

At the end of the book, Mehta mulls over the benefits of his analysis and recognizes that despite his ambivalence about it, he has been able to write in an entirely new autobiographical vein and is able to explore nooks and crannies in his psyche that had previously been unavailable to him. He even credits the analysis with inspiring him to create the Continents series of books, for which we are greatly in his debt. Mehta does not accomplish his goal of providing an objective account of the mysteries of love. Of course, none of us thought he would do that anyway. In one of the heated exchanges with his analyst he says, "You probably don’t even believe in love. You probably think that marriage is just mutual regard and respect." His analyst responds, "That’s what it is, if you strip it of all its neurotic fantasies" (p. 334). This explanation of love is a little disillusioning. While Mehta appears to have had a good deal of help in understanding his pattern of object relations, the mysteries of love remain unfathomed—as they should. The author has given us a splendid account of his life and loves, however, and readers who wish to immerse themselves on a personal voyage through the minefield of passion and human connection will find the book a worthwhile read.




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