“Insight” is a word that gets thrown around a lot in psychiatric circles: a patient who has it is someone who understands that they are ill, whereas lack of insight is considered to be a symptom of serious mental illness. Shalom Camenietzki might have insight in the medical sense of the word – his memoir, Out of My Mind, is about his experiences as a psychologist with bipolar disorder – but he often seems to be missing it when it comes to the everyday use of the term.
The premise of a mental health professional who has seen both sides of the system is a promising one, and Camenietzki’s prose is clear and tight. There are a few truly fascinating and engaging moments, kernels of what might have grown into an important book, but they frustratingly never bear fruit.
What gets in the way of Camenietzki’s potential is his treatment of the many years of abuse he inflicted on his wife and sons. Descriptions of the assaults are graphic – he throttles his wife, punches her in the head, presses a knife into his son’s throat deeply enough to require stitches – and while he does express remorse, he also largely uses his illness as an excuse for his actions. His doctors and therapists are aware of his abuse but only intervene when he is experiencing obvious psychosis; otherwise, they allow him to continue seeing patients and running group therapy sessions. The police are almost never involved, children’s services are never called, and everyone seems committed to looking the other way whenever possible.
Camenietzki makes it clear that he has personal trauma surrounding his own mother, trauma that seems to impact his treatment of his wife. Fifteen pages before the end of the book, he finally wonders whether his abuse of his wife is completely the product of his illness or whether the assaults were “a huge temper tantrum over [his] incapacity to control her.” Had these avenues been fully explored, Out of My Mind would have been a much stronger book. Instead, it mostly serves as evidence of how systems of power protect their own members.