Andrew Solomon’s The Noonday Demon: two decades of #MedHums marketing

(Note for readers new to my blog: although I argue for much greater Pharma-psychiatry regulation and scrutiny, I also oppose pillshaming and anti-diagnosis purism.)

This proposal (lightly edited here) has been accepted, and will be delivered as a twenty minute paper at the July 2019 biennial conference of Symbiosis: A Journal of Transatlantic Literary and Cultural Relations, in Dundee, Scotland. The deadline for proposals has been extended to 25th March.

 

Andrew Solomon’s The Noonday Demon (2001, new edition 2015): an example of US-UK BioPsychiatry marketing through #MedHums (Medical Humanities)

TND

In January 1998 the New Yorker published an autobiographical account of depression by one of its regular writers. Three years later the greatly expanded piece appeared in book form, and it would become arguably the single most impactful Anglo-American work, in any genre or discipline, to promote biopsychiatry in the last two decades.

The Noonday Demon received immense media attention and won over twenty book prizes. I have found only one review which dared to express any significant scepticism, by Joyce Carol Oates, who noted the hypnotic use of ‘mellifluous brand names: Celexa, Xanax, Viagra, Zyprexa, Effexor, Wellbutrin, BuSpar, Depakote, Klonopin, Halcion, Restoril, Zoloft, Paxil et al’.[1]

Andrew Solomon had just published his first (and only) novel, well reviewed in both the UK and the US, when he became depressed. He had a BA from Yale and an MA from Cambridge (England), both in English Literature, and he wove multiple literary quotations and biographical facts through his uplifting account of historical and contemporary neuroscience and psychopharmacology. The depressed and ultimately suicidal Virginia Woolf appears on the second page of the first chapter, and later the reader learns that Solomon was held in high regard as a Woolf scholar by culturally-informed New Yorkers.[2] Shakespeare, Sylvia Plath, and many other canonical writers are employed in the narrative which ends, in the 2015 edition, with an account of the author’s ongoing medications, monitored by both a psychiatrist and a ‘psychopharmacologist’, supplemented by visits to a third specialist, a psychotherapist.[3]

While there is no evidence that Solomon or anyone else ever employed deliberate deception, it is interesting that his father, a businessman, was the CEO of the company which came to license Celexa (under the brand name ‘Cipramil’ it was the UK’s bestselling antidepressant of the mid-2000s) in the US.[4] In 2010 the company, Forest Laboratories, pleaded guilty to criminal overmarketing to children, and was fined $313 million.[5]

I argue that mental health is especially vulnerable to a problematic notion of imbalance between The Two Cultures, potentially leading to an indiscriminate prescription of Humanities in order to counteract overactive Biomedical Science within the mental healthcare body.

As some Humanities scholars have pointed out, quite often ‘humanists can end up privileging medical understandings of health and wellbeing issues’.[6] While not disputing the truth of Andrew Solomon’s account, I explore how that may have occurred in The Noonday Demon and in its transatlantic reception.

 

[1] Joyce Carol Oates, Review of The Noonday Demon, The New York Times 24th June 2001: http://www.nytimes.com/books/01/06/24/reviews/010624.24oatest.html

[2] The Noonday Demon (Scribner, New York, 2015) pp. 87-8

[3] pp. 445-7

[4] https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2002-05-26/a-ceo-and-his-son

[5] https://www.nytimes.com/2010/09/16/health/16drug.html

[6] Maria Vaccarella, Review of Paul Crawford et al., “Health Humanities”, BMJ Medical Humanities Blog (2015) http://blogs.bmj.com/medical-humanities/2015/05/05/the-reading-room-a-review-of-health-humanities/; Anne Whitehead,‎ Angela Woods (Editors) The Edinburgh Companion to the Critical Medical Humanities (Edinburgh University Press, 2016)

 

(Since submitting this abstract I have found a feisty review by Solomon, of James Davies’ Cracked, which defends biopsychiatry while acknowledging some downsides of Pharma’s behaviour. He accuses Davies of ‘pompous psychic Marxism’ and having a ‘smug view of human suffering’.)

About Dr Neil MacFarlane MRCPsych

Independent Psychiatrist providing culturally informed mental health opinion, advice, and a few new facts. Based near London, UK. Main qualifications: BA MBBS MA MRCPsych.

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