The Wolff Brothers: “This Boy’s Life & The Duke of Deception.”


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The four best memoirs I have ever read, and I have read too many, are Frank McCort’s, Angela’s Ashes, “Tobias Wolff’s, “This Boy’s Life,” Geoffrey Wolff’s, “The Duke of Deception,”  and Jeanette Walls, “The Glass Castle.”

These books are similar in describing horrendous childhood’s of upheaval and instability, complicated by mentally ill, vagabond, eccentric parents, and a sort of lower middle class poverty. (I know that’s an oxymoron, read the books and you’ll understand). But the similarities go much further and deeper. Each author is a brilliant writer, with an uncanny ability to recount his or her traumatic childhoods without self-pity. They don’t seem to hold resentment towards their incompetent parents. In fact they are able to recognize the strengths in their parent’s oddity and the positive aspects of their personalities. They find in their chaotic childhood experience, grist for creative tour de-forces, in each of these four memoirs.

Please see prior review of “Glass Castle”. I will review “Angela’s Ashes,” soon.

Tobias and Geoffrey Wolff are brothers. Geoffrey is eight years older than Tobias. When their parents divorce, Geoffrey heads off to live with his father and Tobias goes with his mother.

Arthur Wolff was a Yalie, fighter pilot, and ersatz aviation engineer, who was also a vagabond, con-man, flim-flam-man, forger and alcoholic. In the “”The Duke of Deception,” Geoffrey describes his chaotic life with his crazy father who bilks and cons everyone he meets, including friends, associates, wives, and Geoffrey himself.  They move from place to place in continuous flight from debtors and jail. (They end up in La Jolla, where I was born and living at the time, with my father named Arthur and brother named Jeffrey.)  Arthur forges credentials and lands a job as an aeronautical engineer at General Dynamics, where my friends parents worked at the time. Eventually Arthur is committed to a mental hospital and Geoffrey heads off to Princeton.

Geoffrey’s descriptions of his father are brilliantly nuanced, remarkably sympathetic, and psychologically insightful.  He says for example, ”As I dislike him more and more. I become more and more like him. I felt trapped.” This is a remarkable statement. As a therapist, one of the most difficult things to get across to people is the concept that without significant insight and effort, one tends to possess the very aspects of their own parents that they most despise. Geoffrey masters this in three short sentences.

Tobias Wolff’s book starts in 1955 with ten year old Tobias, fleeing in a Nash Rambler that was continuously boiling over, with his mother, who was leaving one of a series of continuously violent relationships. They were driving from Florida to Utah and had broken down once again on the top of the Continental Divide, when a semi looses it’s brakes, screams it’s air horn in one long wail, and flies off the divide with Tobias and his mother watching. Tobias’s mother was moving to Florida to strike it rich mining uranium.

So starts Tobias’s memoir.  Honestly, I don’t understand the appeal of fiction as much anymore, when non-fiction is so much weirder, more incredible, and far more interesting.  Tobias eventually ends up living in a town called Concrete (Washington) with a concrete, blockhead of a stepfather, who was a sadistic, martinet.  Eventually he escapes all this chaos into the relatively more predictable Vietnam War and training in the special forces. (He wrote a great book about his tour of duty entitled, “In the Pharaoh’s Army: Memoirs of the Lost War.)

Tobias and Geoffrey meet up once, after a six-year separation in La Jolla, just before Geoffrey leaves for Princeton, after their father is institutionalized.  Tobias comes out by bus.  Geoffrey spends the summer writing technical manuals for General Dynamic’s under his father’s name, while assigning Tobias daily reading requirements of all the Greek tragedies. I was younger at this time swimming at Windansea, right next to where they lived.

Geoffrey eventually goes on to receive his Ph.D. in Literature, was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, and was a Professor of Literature at University of California Irvine.  He has published numerous highly acclaimed books. He had two sons and married a Clinical Social Worker. (I am a Clinical Social Worker. Weird coincidences).  Tobias studied at Oxford, received his Master’s Degree in Creative Writing at Stanford and is a Professor of Creative Writing at Stanford.  He also has written many highly acclaimed books.  He married and had three children.  A movie was made of the book, “This Boy’s Life,” starring Leonardo What’s His Name.  Their mother eventually became President of the League of  Women Voters.  Truth is stranger than fiction.

The relationship between the brothers remained close and mutually supportive since their time together in La Jolla.  Both are considered two of America’s finest contemporary writers.

It is remarkable and comforting to realize that all four of these authors overcame childhood’s of shocking hardship and trauma, and used their experiences to write creative, beautiful, and inspiring memoirs.

Highly recommend all four of these books. Recommend you read them in chronological order starting with “Angela’s Ashes,” then “The Duke of Deception,” “This Boys Life,” and “The Glass Castle.” (Toss in Pharaoh’s Army and you’ll be glad you did!)

Happy Reading!

“Covered Wagon Women: Diaries and Letters from the Western Trails, 1840-1849,” by Kenneth L. Holmes




“Covered Wagon Women” is a fascinating non-fiction account of fourteen pioneer women traveling west in the 1840’s. The book was edited and compiled by historian Kenneth L. Holmes. It is a remarkable book in that it consists of primary source, unedited diary entries, letters and other correspondence. The editor left the women’s narratives unedited as the women actually wrote them, replete with original syntax, spelling, and punctuation, and the mistakes made therein.There are additional “Covered Wagon Women,” volumes in a series. I read volume two and found it equally compelling.These unedited first person narratives give the reader a genuine sense of who these women really were, what they were seeing, experiencing, and feeling. Of course the unbelievable hardship, birth, death and tragedy are heart wrenching, but these incredible women’s intelligence, courage and appreciation of the beauty of their experience is also made abundantly clear. The women’s observations are reminiscent of the biographies of the famous male explorers, at times scientifically dispassionate, as they keenly and in detail, describe the new flora and fauna, terrain, climate, and Native Americans they encounter. They were after all, explorers as well.

They are also most effective in relaying their feelings. Take for example this excerpt from Tabitha Brown about her experience traveling west in 1846, now left to her own devices as she struggles on with an old, feeble, near death companion who was unable to care for himself or offer her any assistance,

“Here the shades of night were gathering fast and I could see the wagon tracks no further. I alighted from my horse, flung off my saddle and saddle bags and tied him fast with a lasso rope to a tree…..his senses were gone…..I covered him as well as I could with blankets…and helped the old gentleman, expecting he would be a corpse by morning. Pause for a moment and consider my situation-worse than alone; in a strange wilderness; without food, without fire; cold and shivering; wolves fighting and howling all around me; darkness of night forbade the stars to shine upon me; solitary- all was solitary as death…. As soon as light had dawned, I pulled down my tent, saddled the horses, found the Captain so as to stand on his feet…”

And she continues on towards Oregon. Remarkable. And there are many more narratives like this in the book.

I read a lot of these non-fiction pioneer and Native American history books (more about these in a latter review) as I traveled recently through the west, crossing and re-crossing the Oregon and Santa Fe Trails. I read books about a woman homesteading alone on the prairie, the first homesteading couple in what is now Glacier National Park, another about a widow hiring a helper and traveling on the first trek over the Oregon trail where they broke the trail, a book about a woman and her family crossing the Mojave Desert and this incredible collection of women’s narratives and I realize we’ve all been robbed with the books, movies and folklore of “the old west,” that have focused on the cowboys and male explorers, and mostly ignored the incredible fortitude, bravery and contribution of these pioneer women.

Riveting reading. Highly recommend.



“The Memory Chalet,” by Tony Judt

The Memory Chalet
The Memory Chalet by Tony Judt
The Memory Chalet
by Tony Judt


Cindy Knoke‘s review

Sep 23, 12  
Such a haunting and beautiful book by such a brilliant man.While dying of ALS Judt envisions heaven as a train on which he rides continuously through the Alps. This evocative imagery has stayed with me and probably always will.While becoming progressively “locked in” by ALS, Judt’s mind remains very much alive. He escapes into “the memory chalet,” a Swiss chalet he stayed in on holidays as a child. He recalls in his memory every room, nook and cranny, the smells, the food, the snow, the happy memories.He does this with other memories of his life as well, and shares these memories with the reader. We are the better for it.Judt who had made such a huge contribution to all of us through his life long scholarship, continues to make a huge contribution to us as he dies. He let’s us realize the power of our minds to help us escape from intolerable circumstances and shows us that memories can be almost as powerful as reality.

Somehow, through brutal honesty, and no-sugar coating, he makes the process of dying from something as horrific as ALS seem less terrifying. His memories provide great comfort to him and to the reader.

Highly recommend this inspiring and moving book.

I wish Judt endless sunny skies  as he rides over the Alps on his never-stopping train.



“Brooklyn Zoo: The Education of a Psychotherapist,” Darcy Lockman

Brooklyn Zoo: The Education of a Psychotherapist
by Darcy Lockman


Cindy Knoke‘s review

Sep 06, 12  ·  edit

I wish someone had helped this author put off writing this book until she got some more experience and insight. I feel like someone should have protected her from publishing this. She seems like a caring person, with good intentions, but remarkably naïve. I’m trying here. I did not dislike her. I’m not angry at her. I am just sort of chagrined by the whole thing. Maybe she just needs time and more experience before attempting this?Here are some examples of statements that dismayed me:Dr Wolfe, a psychologist supervisor, makes a totally obvious inappropriate sexual reference to her regarding her blushing:

She says, “…I couldn’t stop myself from thinking like a therapist. My training had taught me to pay attention to associations….I believed Dr Wolfe believed my blushing a sign like the interviewee in his story, that I was harboring purient thoughts. Given our age difference, I hoped he’d only be flattered, but in moments like those I often felt I’d rather not be privy to the ways of knowing of my field. I certainly was not a mind reader (she certainly is not) as strangers I met at parties sometimes seemed to fear, but like a telepath I did have clues to bits of others private thoughts that a non-psychologist was spared. I guessed I could never go back to being that, and my chest filled with regret.”

Where to start with this? How narcissistic is this? If a rock fell on her toe and it hurt, would her “special ways of knowing” help her realize telepathically that it hurt?

Her chest filled with regret?

I do get that strangers might fear her at parties.

Come on, how many women have sexually inappropriate things said to them from clueless horny men, often in positions of authority? Does it require “telepathy” and special “psychologist ways of knowing,” to identify? We all understand this and pretend to ignore it as a strategy. Recognizing this is nothing special. Sadly.

Sadly, I also completely get why her supervisor gave her a bunch of 2’s on a 1-5 Likert scale rating her performance. I wish she did.

Plus, I really didn’t know anyone believed anymore that schizophrenia’s origins came during the first year of life from “not achieving”… “basic trust and faith in the fact of (your) existence.” I thought the “schizophrenigenic” mother thing got debunked decades ago, when genetic and biochemical correlates to schizophrenia became clear. “Auditory Hallucinations result from the projection of the pathological introject of the mother.” It goes on and on. She is bogged down by psychoanalytic excess.

Plus if you want to be thought of as a caring therapist, you shouldn’t title your book, “Brooklyn Zoo,” implying your clients are animals, your colleagues zookeepers?

She is out of touch with her patients, too involved with herself and her ego, and too critical of allied professionals and colleagues, like other psychologists, psychiatrists, and clinical social workers, even recreational therapists for gosh sakes.

She lacked the experience or competence to write a meaningful book about a therapist’s perceptions. It frightens me when professional reviews say things like, “Want to know what your therapist is thinking? Read this book.”

This isn’t what your therapist is thinking, trust me on this. Bottom line, this book needs to be written by a better therapist, with more experience.

Someone should have protected her from publishing this.

“The Cure For Anything is Saltwater,” by Mary South


Mary aboard her trawler Bossanovaimages (10)

The Cure For Anything Is Salt Water
by Mary South 

I confess to having a weakness for non-fiction books about women who check out of their “normal” hum- drum lives, do interesting things, preferably on their own.
I admire this.
Mary South is an interesting woman who did an interesting thing, on her own. She up and quit her job because it was annoying her, and wasn’t working for her, and found a better life.
I’m always am in favor of this if it’s not working for you and you can do it.
Plus I did it, so I’m biased.
She said re: her job environment, “”I was in a contamination zone and I felt panicky about getting out.”
Many of us can relate?
Anyhoo, Mary quit her successful publishing job, took a tough nine week mariners course, met some really interesting people in the process, like a successful high powered attorney, with chronic insomnia, hypertension and a drinking problem who also chucked his job.
“Good for him,” I thought.
In the midst of this she bought a boat.
Your thinking sailing boat, I know, and maybe your thinking, “Oh I’m tired of all these lucky people who buy yachts and sail around the world. The oceans must be littered with all these unemployed people sailing around in them.”
Probably, really, not. Although it does seem like this, to me too.
Anyway, she didn’t buy a yacht. I had to look this up to get it right, she bought a motorized trawler.
Google it. .
She motored it with John from Florida to New York. He is the smart attorney she met in the mariner’s class, who chucked his job.
This trip is what the book is about mostly, but also her life and relationships.
She is interesting and writes well, for example, “The worst of the (storm) front just turned and wandered off, like an exhausted bully with attention deficit disorder.”
She is a person who wrote a memoir who I would actually like to meet and that is saying a lot. Many of these authors, I think, great memoir, probably don’t want to meet you. Augusten Burroughs comes to mind.
Love his books, a lot. Don’t want to meet him.
Anyway, she seems interesting and her book is good. Augusten’s are better….but she is probably a lot nicer.
Recommend if you are interested in this sort of thing.
It isn’t like climbing Mt Everest and being John Krakauer.
But then, what is?

“Sybil Exposed,” by Debbie Nathan



As a young person I read the book, “Sybil,” with morbid fascination and some anxiety.

As a retired psychotherapist with over 27 years of clinical experience, I read the book, “Sybil Exposed,” with a combination of disgust, anger and sorrow.

I was licensed as a therapist in 1982 when the Multi-Personality-Disorder “movement” among mental health professionals was in full swing. I went to multiple symposiums and trainings on the subject, many required, due to the nature of my work with perpetrators and victims of child abuse.

I learned all about the “epidemic” of Satanic Cults murdering children. I lived through the various scandals such as the McMartin Preschool debacle, and knew some of the players as colleagues. I saw parents whose children were taken away due to false memories implanted in them by their therapists. It was a time of hysteria in some parts of the mental health field and it was disturbing then, and now. The proponents were like members of a particularly vehement religious cult.

Before the publication of the book, “Sybil,” in 1973, there were approximately 200 documented cases of MPD. Several years after the book’s publication there were over 40,000 documented cases.

There is now substantial evidence that what is now called Disassociative Disorder exists. It is rather rare. Imagine how damaged the people who really had it were by all this media bruhaha, and misinformation.

Shirley Ardell Mason (Sybil) was a rather sweet, shy, high strung woman, with some emotional difficulties, and a tendency towards hysterical conversion symptoms (physical symptoms with psychological origins.) She came from a dysfunctional family, (I’ve yet to meet someone who hasn’t), with a rather perverse and domineering mother. Shirley’s difficulties could very likely have been ameliorated with the rather brief attention of a competent and ethical therapist.

Instead she began treatment with Cornelia Wilbur MD, a noted Psychiatrist. Cornelia than proceeded to commit basically every form of malpractice I can think of, short of sleeping with her patient, over the course of many years. Actually she did sleep with her, but probably never had sex with her.

She fed Shirley, a basically treatable, neurotic individual, very high does of sodium pentothal, stimulants, depressants, antixiolitics, psychedelics, anti-psychotics and electroshock therapy. It was under this “treatment” that Shirley’s alter personalities began to emerge, with the coaching and assistance of her psychiatrist. She also violated practically every therapeutic boundary, living with, traveling with, and employing her patient for years. She also repeatedly asserted that Shirley’s problems came from heinous child sex abuse at the hand of her mother, obstensively causing Shirley to develop multi-personalities as a defense.

This psychiatrist “treats Shirley for years, and then teams up with a journalist, Flora Schreiber, who writes the book, “Sybil,” with Dr. Wilbur’s coaching. Eventually it is make into a movie starring Sally Field. The psychiatrist and journalist form a for profit company called Sybil.Inc, to capitalize on the success of the book and movie. Dr. Wilbur builds a huge career for herself based on the book and movie, that damaged untold numbers of clients and their families, whose therapists were trained in, and employed, Dr. Wilbur’s methods.

It is just another chapter, in some of the disturbing history of the mental health profession.

And the media and movie industry as well.

It is important to note that many mental health professionals were strongly opposed to Dr. Wilbur’s methods. There was back then, a strong counter movement in the mental health field, to question Wilbur’s methods and findings, and cast doubt on her assertions on the prevalence of MPD.  Herbert Spiegel MD, saw Shirley when Dr. Wilbur went on vacation and accused her of manipulating her patient for profit. Robert Reiber Psy.D, challenged Dr Wilbur’s assertions publicly and accused her of concocting her patient’s symptoms for profit. Theses are just a few examples. There was significant, contentious, push-back in the field over the MPD “epidemic.”

After Sybil finally disconnected herself from the clutches of her therapist, her symptoms began to subside. I will not wreck the book with a spoiler as there is much, much more that will happen, and this is not how the book ends.

It may surprise some contemporary therapists and clients alike, to know that although, Dr. Wilbur’s behavior was grossly inappropriate and extreme, I was in high school in the 1970’s (Sybil was publised in 1973) and several of my friend’s parents were psychiatrists. The majority were decent, ethical people, but there were some who openly slept with their patients, took drugs with them etc. We knew because they invited us to their houses for our high school parties, and their patients/sex partners were there, with them, and us.

Today they would lose their licenses.

Strange times indeed.

Highly recommend this book.

It will aid in empowering clients to take control of their therapy, to seek second opinions, and to not go along with anything that seems wrong. I have included the following, which every client should be given a copy of by their therapist. If you aren’t feeling your therapy is going well, or are uncomfortable with something, talk to your therapist about it, and if you are not satisfied, seek a second opinion.

Here are your Bill of Rights:

Patient Bill of Rights

Patients have the right to:

  • Request and receive information about the therapist’s professional capabilities, including licensure, education, training, experience, professional association membership, specialization and limitations.
  • Have written information about fees, payment methods, insurance reimbursement, number of sessions, substitutions (in cases of vacation and emergencies), and cancellation policies before beginning therapy.
  • Receive respectful treatment that will be helpful to you.
  • A safe environment, free from sexual, physical and emotional abuse.
  • Ask questions about your therapy.
  • Refuse to answer any question or disclose any information you choose not to reveal.
  • Request and receive information from the therapist about your progress.
  • Know the limits of confidentiality and the circumstances in which a therapist is legally required to disclose information to others.
  • Know if there are supervisors, consultants, students, or others with whom your therapist will discuss your case.
  • Refuse a particular type of treatment, or end treatment without obligation or harassment.
  • Refuse electronic recording (but you may request it if you wish).
  • Request and (in most cases) receive a summary of your file, including the diagnosis, your progress, and the type of treatment.
  • Report unethical and illegal behavior by a therapist.
  • Receive a second opinion at any time about your therapy or therapist’s methods.
  • Have a copy of your file transferred to any therapist or agency you choose.

Poor Shirley. She deserved so much better.

“Sum forty Tales From The Afterlives,” by David Eagleman


I don’t know how this man has accomplished all he has in his life and how he managed to write such a hilarious, thought provoking and profound book.
He’s a comedically gifted neurologist.
I know, I know, we’re all like this.
Read this wonderful book.
It will make you laugh.
And think.
Plus this guy would the best graduate advisor in the world.

“The Glass Castle,” by Jeanette Walls

The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls
The Glass Castle
by Jeannette Walls

Cindy Knoke‘s review

Aug 13, 12  · 
This has to be the best memoir I have read.
Jeanette Walls has a lot guts.
She worked as an entertainment editor for MSNBC when she wrote this book, hob-nobbing with celebrities and such. No one she worked with could ever have imagined this successful, attractive, bright, high-functioning woman, could ever have come from the background and childhood that she did.
This is what makes her gutsy.
She told everyone.
She shreds off the patina of her social status and tells us in heartbreakingly beautiful prose what her childhood was like She doesn’t minimize or gloss over things. She gives us the whole sad story.
Two, umm, “eccentric” parents? Basically an artsy, but mentally ill mother. An gadget-gizmo-tinker, alcoholic dad. A vagabond childhood of continuous movement and upheaval. Being destitute, eating out of trash cans, wearing ragged clothes, worrying about her siblings, caring for them with parents whose heads were someplace else.
The family ends up in horrific circumstances in a West Virginia mining town in her father’s childhood home with relatives straight out of an Alfred Hitchcock horror flick.
Yet, she doesn’t really describe it like this. She includes all the above unflinchingly.
But so much more.
There is love in this book. Lot’s of it. Love for her parents, and her brothers and sisters. She describes her parents in many ways, affectionately. She recognizes the creativity and intelligence behind their oddity. She describes her father teaching her about science and astronomy. She describes her mother and her positive thinking and her love of art.
This is what makes this author so unusual and admirable. Her memoir is beautifully written and un-self pitying. It is a tour-de-force.
Highly recommend..

“The Center Cannot Hold: My Journey Through Madness” Elyn Saks


Elyn Saks is a remarkable and impressive person. She is a law professor At USC who has schizophrenia and is an advocate for the rights of involuntarily hospitalized psychiatric patients. She is an expert in mental health law and has a special interest in limiting the use of involuntary physical restraint on psychiatric patients which she is interested in due to her own terrifying experiences being involuntarily hospitalized and restrained. She is also an Adjunct Professor of Psychiatry at UCSD and recipient of a MacArthur Foundation genius grant which she is using to fund the “Saks Institute for Mental Health Law, Policy & Ethics.”

Saks bravery and honesty in presenting herself and her experience is remarkably compelling. Although this book chronicles Saks frightening experience with her disease and the societal response to it, it is ultimately an inspiring book that will help to educate people about the realities of the disease of schizophrenia and provide hope to people struggling with it. She is quoted as saying, “there is a tremendous need to implode the myths about mental illness, to put a face on it…”
This is precisely what she has done. Elyn Saks is a magnificent role model and this is an excellent and empowering book.
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Elyn Saks

“Endgame 1945: The Missing Final Chapter of World War II,” by David Stafford

2680653 (1)Endgame 1945 is an historical narrative told from the perspective of eyewitnesses, about the final three months after VE Day in Europe. It covers in fascinating detail events leading to the deaths of Hitler and Mussolini, the liberation of concentration camps and the challenges faced by allied occupying forces contending with the mass human trauma of war devastated Europe. It describes the Herculean task faced by relief agencies dealing with displaced persons and the traumas experienced by German women and children in Allied occupied Germany.
This book is a tour de force. Stafford is a brilliant writer and historian and his subject, these specific three months, has been mostly neglected by historians. This is a riveting, compelling read that is difficult to put down and stays with you long after you finish reading it. The extent of the trauma in Europe was mind boggling. The task of restoring order, Sisyphean. The heroism of the allies incredible and the suffering of so many hard to contemplate.
87408c1301d10a9bdc812743de94cd2f (Photo: Struthof Concentration Camp, C. Knoke).