BOOK REVIEW: ‘Memoirs of an Addicted Brain’: It’s Hard to Feel Sympathetic to Privileged Marc Lewis Leaving Wide Swath of Harm, Disappointment — and Being Rewarded in the End

  • Reviewed by David M. Kinchen 
BOOK REVIEW: 'Memoirs of an Addicted Brain': It's Hard to Feel Sympathetic to Privileged Marc Lewis Leaving Wide Swath of Harm, Disappointment -- and Being Rewarded in the End

What to make of “Memoirs of an Addicted Brain: A Neuroscientist Examines His Former Life on Drugs” (PublicAffairs, 336 pages, $26.99) by Canadian neuroscientist Marc Lewis, PhD?

 

On the surface it’s the account of a privileged kid from Toronto enduring bullying and feeling homesick at age 15 in a New England boarding school, easing his suffering with cough medicine, alcohol and marijuana. He moves to California where he becomes a drug addict. Later he moves to Malaysia and India, experiencing every drug imaginable. His well-written account is accompanied by scientific descriptions of the effect of each drug on the brain.

 

Coming from the cohort a few years before the Baby Boomers made their presence felt (I was born in 1938), I’ve long been highly critical of Boomer egocentric behavior — the narcissistic attitude displayed by so many of the people born in 1946 and the years following. Of course, many of my cohort and those born even earlier — people like the late Dennis Hopper, born two years before me — experimented with drugs to extreme degrees, but it seems that the Boomers have romanticized their addictions.

 

Lewis’s “Lost Weekend” (check out the classic Billy Wilder directed movie “The Lost Weekend” starring Ray Milland as a talented writer harming those who love him as he descends into the hell of alcoholism) lasted far longer than the character portrayed in the 1945 film and the Charles R. Jackson novel which was so beautifully adapted to the screen by Wilder and Charles Brackett.

 

Marc Lewis

Marc Lewis

 

Marc Lewis made the mistake of moving to Berkeley, California in the 1960s, spending more time seeking out methamphetamines, LSD and heroin than studying at the University of California. His father and mother had moved to San Francisco and Lewis’s hedonism and selfishness affected his parents. Could they have been too indulgent? I have no doubt that living in California in the 1960s and 1970s was a mistake.

 

There’s also the double standard of punishment. If Lewis had been black or Hispanic rather than white, I’m dead certain that he would have suffered more punishment for his drug abuse and breaking and entering to steal drugs. Imagine a black guy breaking into the pharmacy of a mental institution in Thunder Bay, Ontario, to steal drugs…he probably would have been shot and killed!

 

Lewis — who let down his professor/advisor at the University of Windsor, which had secured the internship for him — lost his post and acquired a criminal record but he didn’t do serious prison time. And he was later forgiven, was granted a license (spelled “licence” in the Canadian usage used throughout the book, which was published last year in Canada by Doubleday Canada) to be a counselor and eventually earned a doctorate from the University of Toronto.

 

Talk about the advantages of a privileged, upper middle class background! Trashing people right and left and getting rewarded for it! Pardon the anger, but I feel sorry for the professor who recommended Lewis for the Thunder Bay position. Lewis himself admits that his misdeeds harmed the University of Windsor, which lost its chances of placing interns in Thunder Bay. Having seen my mother being physically and mentally abused by my father — and being scarred for life by this experience — I had no sympathy for Lewis hitting his wife. There’s no excuse for his stealing drugs from hospitals to feed his habit. Talk about Ugly Americans: Lewis is a prime example of an Ugly Canadian!

 

I’ve been called judgmental by more than a few people, but I saw early on that emulating my hedonistic, alcoholic father was not an option, that I had to avoid the behavior that destroyed my father, a man who had the potential to accomplish much, but who ended up physically and mentally harming his wife and scarring his children. I’m very sure that my decision not to be a parent stemmed from what I saw first hand on that Michigan farm as I was growing up. Go ahead! Call me judgmental, but life, after all, is about choices.

 

Lewis doesn’t excuse his behavior and, in effect, seems to believe it makes him a better teacher. “Do as I say, not as I did” is a mantra that I took away from the book, although nowhere does Lewis say this. I have a problem with this; he writes so beautifully about the good feelings resulting from drug usage that readers might decide to emulate him. I hope not. In the wrong hands, this memoir could be a dangerous weapon.

About the Author

Dr. Marc Lewis is a developmental neuroscientist and professor of human development and applied psychology at Radboud University in the Netherlands, and professor emeritus at the University of Toronto. He is the author of more than fifty journal publications in neuroscience and developmental psychology and coeditor of “Emotion, Development, and Self-Organization: Dynamic Systems Approaches to Emotional Development.” Marc Lewis website: http://www.memoirsofanaddictedbrain.com


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