OAARSN Book Review

Shadow Syndromes, by John J. Ratey, M.D. and Catherine Johnson, Ph.D. (New York: Pantheon Books, 1997), 389 pp.

From the review in AAIWW Winter 1999-2000, by Lucie Milne

"Millions of people who attribute their daily life problems to bad parents or low self-esteem are in fact struggling with a shadow syndrome," write the authors. Among these problems are mild forms of serious mental disorders that can affect the course of one’s life, such as chronic sadness, obsessiveness, outbursts of anger, inability to finish tasks, and discomfort in social situations.

Drs Ratey and Johnson say that such patterns of behavior have their origins in the "inherent structure and chemistry of the individual brain [and] that they are distinctly identifiable." Knowing who we are biologically, as well as psychologically, is the key, they say, to living a free and full life. Both authors write from their own experiences.

In studying medicine, Ratey discovered his failure to free-associate, necessary for becoming a psycholanalyst. His brain was too active, too driven, too obsessed; its biology and basic neurophysiology interfered with his ability to do what he wanted to do. He learned that he suffered from ADD (attention disorder deficit) when he worked with patients who had similar problems. Johnson found, a year after the birth of her son in 1987, that she was tired, sad, chronically worried, and unable to function. She was diagnosed with an "atypical" depression, mild as depressions go. She tried Prozac and became one of that drug’s success stories, learning the fundamental lesson of this book—the importance of biology in a person’s capacity to function. Prozac, she says, did not change her history: it changed her biology and so her life.

Shadow Syndromes brings clarity to the biology behind personality, helping us to understand the real causes of the "treacherous moods and behavior that can hold us back" and providing guidance as to how to emerge from behavioral shadows towards a "positive and lasting change in ourselves and in those we love."

Topics of chapters include masked depression, intermittent rage disorder, mild ADD, addiction, and anxiety. "Autistic Echoes" is our focus here. Here are a few echoes.

All shadow syndromes strike at the heart of social life. "The world of work is easier to negotiate than that of love and friendship." Paid employment, not love, provides the main source of structure—with its schedules, routines and rhythms of work. "Shadow syndromes flourish in the open spaces of our private relationships. Mild depression, mild mania, mild ADD: all can sabotage the bonds of love and friendship. But in autism, full-blown and mild, social difficulties are the disorder." There seems to be a genetic or hereditary factor in families affected by autism, as mild autistic tendencies may often be noted in parents, siblings or other relatives.

The authors describe a mild form of autism that is compatible with marriage, parenting, satisfactory heterosexual-sexual performance, and gainful employment. "Who," the authors ask, "is the person with a hidden or shadow form of autism?" The odd duck, the person (usually male) called a "geek" or "nerd" because he is socially awkward. Tech types recognize this quality in themselves. MIT offers a course in social skills to its students. There is a decided connection between autism and computerdom. Bill Gates reports such autistic qualities as rocking, jumping on trampolines, not making eye contact, lacking social skills to enter a group conversation.

So much more could be said. I appreciate immensely the message of this book, which is important for all of us, regardless of how we are "assembled as human individuals." I wonder if the element of love is not given adequate attention. Yes, biology and chemistry are givens, and social difficulties are recognized, but love (from my perspective, a love of God in us) is what motivates understanding, caring, healing and the perseverance which is so much needed to help others and ourselves whenever difficulties "set us apart."

- Reviewed by Lucie Milne of Newmarket, retired Presbyterian minister and author of About Myself (1998), the story of a Guelph adult with autism