Adolescence is difficult and painful: rebellion, critical parental scrutiny, an overall feeling of not living up to expectations. For some of us it is a time of excess – drug use, arguments, lots of psychic pain. Mindy Lewis’ compelling memoir is about what happens when adolescent rebellion is not treated as routine. Her version of teenage acting out led to a more than two-year incarceration in the New York State Psychiatric Institute at Columbia–Presbyterian Medical Center (which she calls PI) when she was almost 16 years old. The book, Life Inside, explores Lewis’ life, telling a story of an upbringing quite different from most, and its effects.
Always a creative soul, Lewis expressed her emotions in painting, rarely in writing. But an intense cyber-romance in the early ‘90s led her to begin to express her emotions in writing. She began to take workshops, writing essays and the occasional short story. Positive reinforcement in the workshops and small successes getting published made her take her writing a little more seriously. She actually wasn’t sure she could go through with her story, until she followed friends’ encouragement to write it, not just for herself but for the others who had been with her and for those who are in a similar situation now.
Life inside chronicles a reasonably happy childhood in Manhattan, her father’s departure for California, and the dissolution of her parents’ marriage. The arrival of a stepfather did not provide any cushion as her relationship with her mother started to disintegrate when she began high school, smack in the middle of the ‘60s. Though her painting ability had secured her acceptance at the High School of Music and Art, she soon began to feel as though she didn’t fit in.
She just didn’t feel hip enough for the other kids and heady atmosphere that pervaded the school. Lewis had discovered an escape in marijuana, LSD, and a collection of other drugs. Her parents sent her to a psychiatrist to try to find a way to reach her, and though he didn’t seem to think that she was “crazy”, he recommended institutionalizing her when she was suspended from Music and Art and made a perfunctory attempt at suicide.
Several things strike the reader during the journey through the book: the remarkable level of detail about Lewis’ experiences at PI; the difficult adulthood that seemed as excruciating as it was inevitable following such a contorted adolescence; and the courage that it must have taken to commit all of it to paper. As Lewis says: “In [Life Inside] I hoped to give something—clues to parents of adolescents, or to adolescents themselves who are in pain. I wanted to let them know that there are kindred spirits—they’re not alone. There is a path out of the dark. If the worst situation in my life can become a positive, it’s like alchemy. It gives me faith that miracles can happen in life.”
Her story is honest and open. As a reader, one could identify with her pain and her experience, even though it is quite different from one’s own. Many of the feelings she describes are universal, which leads us to question society and its definition of insanity. The book is really well-written and vivid, with great attention to physical and emotional detail.
The story moves quickly (over 30 years in 350 pages), with its main focus how the 27-months in the institution affected Mindy’s life. However, the book also details Mindy’s journey to understand her life, the world around her, her family, and how to create meaning from experience, going beyond “life inside”. Readers who will particularly appreciate this book include lovers of well-wrought prose, and people who feel impaired by something in their past, and cautiously optimistic about their chances of getting over it and/or growing from it.
Life inside received a starred Kirkus Review, and was named 2003 Book of the Year by the American Journal of Nursing. It is a vivid first-person account of the author’s experiences as a rebellious 15-year-old remanded to a psychiatric ward in the late 1960s.
No comments are needed for the following words: “While conversing with me it was quite obvious that she is more genuinely wrapped up within herself… She is very self-conscious and is usually unable to face the interviewer… Her walk is a sort of bedraggled shuffle which makes me think of someone being led off to their execution. The patient is fearful, extremely anxious and depressed. At times her anxiety rises to such heights that she begins to tremble.”
“There must be something wrong with my reflexes. If they’d been working right, I would have pulled my foot away, or kicked him. I hope he’s a better shrink than he is a doctor.”
“The sleeves hang over my hands, which is fine with me — the more that’s hidden, the better… Once I was a nice little girl, but those days are over. Before I can stop it, that nice little girl’s tears fill my eyes. I blink them away, hoping nobody saw… I can’t take another minute sitting out here in the hallway. Privacy is as important to me as air, and I’m suffocating.”
“I sit here in my chains and the days go by and nothing ever happens. It is an empty joyless life, but I accept it without complaint. I await other times and they will surely come, for I am not destined to sit here for all eternity….I muse on this in my dungeon and am of good cheer.”
Today Lewis is by any account a healthy and creative adult with extraordinary insight. She is an artist by profession, a dancer by avocation and a writer by sheer force of will. At 50, Lewis has kept her youth with her. She is tall, trim, and strong; belly dancing is a passion and bike riding and swimming help, as well. Her manner is direct, tempered by a quietness that bespeaks a life path that has not always been clear or easy.
Inviting the readers to take a close look at contemporary views of mental health through the lens of her own powerful and intimately rendered story, in Life Inside, Lewis has written an important memoir, as tough and candid as it is inspiring and compassionate.
1. Lewis, Mindy. Life inside: A Memoir. Atr