Rough Cuts Podcast #2 - Veronica O'Keane, author of 'The Rag and Bone Shop: How We Make Memories and Memories Make Us'

  
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This podcast is with my colleague, Professor Veronica O’Keane, a psychiatrist and academic in the School of Medicine at Trinity College, Dublin.

Where to start with this utterly delightful, wise, humane, and wonderful book? Probably by saying that this book is a superior Oliver Sacks-like book de nos jours: it is replete with remarkable case-studies of patients suffering differing types of psychosis - but it achieves something far beyond a simple recounting of the patient-psychiatrist experience. It embraces a radical centering of the experience of the patient within a rational brain science context - a major achievement, imho.

In the podcast, we have a very wide-ranging conversation - from a discussion of the often heart-breaking case histories of Veronica’s patients, to the philosophy of ‘care in the community’ - the well-intentioned attempt to treat patients in community rather than old-fashioned ‘asylum’ settings.

I have the strong sense, after this conversation, that we need to recover the old sense of ‘asylum’ - as a place of refuge and safety for psychiatric patients. The alternative has been too often that they end up being inadequately treated in a completely inappropriate places (such as prisons, which often have inadequate treatment pathways). A once or twice a week appointment is clearly insufficient for the needs of many patients, who may need much more intensive treatment.

Looking across the treatment landscape, it feels like clinical psychiatric and clinical psychological services are several decades behind where they could and should be - and this is a terrible moral stain on our societies. The patients described by Veronica are some of the most vulnerable and ‘in need’ patients I have ever read about. We can and should do better - we know we have a much better understanding of the roots of psychiatric disorder, and potential pathways to treatment than ever before.

One of my favourite authors, John Banville, lauds The Rag and Bone Shop here, commenting that

‘O’Keane has written a fascinating, instructive, wise and compassionate book, the significance and value of which it would be hard to exaggerate. The authorial voice is measured and humane, the range of reference is wide, especially in literature – from Proust to John Berger, from William James to Samuel Beckett – and the clinical and philosophical speculations are as stimulating as they are provocative.’

Order the book here or here.

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Blurb below:

'Vivid, unforgettable . . . a fascinating, instructive, wise and compassionate book' John Banville

A leading psychiatrist shows how the mysteries of the brain are illuminated at the extremes of human experience

A twinge of sadness, a rush of love, a knot of loss, a whiff of regret. Memories have the power to move us, often when we least expect it, a sign of the complex neural process that continues in the background of our everyday lives. A process that shapes us: filtering the world around us, informing our behaviour and feeding our imagination.

As a practising psychiatrist, Veronica O'Keane has spent many years observing how memory and experience are interwoven. In this rich, fascinating exploration, she asks, among other things, why can memories feel so real? How are our sensations and perceptions connected with them? Why is place so important in memory? Are there such things as 'true' and 'false' memories? And, above all, what happens when the process of memory is disrupted by mental illness? Here O'Keane uses the broken memories of psychosis to illuminate the integrated human brain, offering a new way of thinking about our own personal experiences.

Drawing on the poignant stories of her patients and much more, from literature and fairy tales, O'Keane uses the latest neuroscientific research to reframe our understanding of the extraordinary puzzle that is the human brain; from birth through to adolescence and old age. This book is a testament to the courage - and suffering - of those who live with serious mental illness, showing how their experiences unlock everything we know and feel.

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