Joanna Pearson and Belle Boggs
Flyleaf Books, Chapel Hill
How close is the mind to the heart? If therapy and medications treat the disorders of the first, what remains to heal the second? These questions pulse beneath the fourteen stories in Every Human Love, the debut collection by Chapel Hill-based psychiatrist and fiction writer Joanna Pearson, who will read from her work at Flyleaf next Thursday with novelist and essayist Belle Boggs.
As the backdrop to many of the collection’s stories, psychiatry allows Pearson to explore the fault lines that underlie personal and professional identity in contemporary America. Many of the protagonists are female psychiatry residents working long hours in emergency rooms and outpatient addiction clinics while, as one character puts it, “real life” is put on pause. In addition to lending the collection a through line of psychiatric vocabulary, Every Human Love’s backdrop emphasizes just how democratic human misery is. Pearson’s fictional psychiatrists, however dutifully they cite DSM-5 criteria for their patients, often struggle to diagnose their own problems. One loses her medical license in a sex scandal; another steals from her patients; a third begins carrying a weapon in her white coat pocket after a mugging. As a whole, the collection doesn’t so much dismiss psychiatry as it shows that the self-reflective psychiatrist has just as much to learn from her patients as she has to impart.
In “Higher Things,” a vacation cabin comes to resemble an inpatient ward: a newly sober, aspiring writer grows preoccupied to the point of madness by the clawing of an imaginary animal in the attic. She succeeds in distracting herself from her boyfriend’s impending lung transplant, but at a high cost to both her relationship and sanity, calling attention to the lengths that “every human love” will go to avoid pain. Here, those lengths result in blinding fear. Elsewhere in the collection, there’s inescapable loneliness, rivalry, and unforgivable superficiality—all the disorders of the heart.
Every Human Love can be bleak. In “Romantics,” a psychiatrist informally diagnoses an “urban hiker” who has settled in her neighborhood and recognizes that we all have the same disorder: “Mental illness or no, my theory is that we each carry within us, like a fault line, the seam of our own destruction.” And before we know it, the destructive person she’s dismissed is in her arms in a consoling platonic embrace. The professional takes comfort from the amateur who may, in terms of human love, be the expert after all.
Despite the focus on psychiatry, Pearson’s language is anything but clinically austere. Some of her most powerful writing is about mothers and the primal fear that can make all rational thought (and professional advice) disappear in an instant. In “The Undead,” a mother finds her young daughter holding a vampire burial in an alleyway, piercing a dead bird’s heart with a discarded syringe. Despite the strange circumstances, Every Human Love articulates the underlying fear that any of us might have: “Panic transmogrified to its most animal form. All those pathogens, furious and tiny and alive, that might or might not be replicating inside her baby, her Isabel—how could she stave them off? By what force of prayer or potion or magic could you save your own flesh and blood? By what charm or chant could you protect anyone?”
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