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Suzanne O’Sullivan – It’s All In Your Head

Book Cover

Well, not quite.

Publisher: Vintage (Random House)
Pages: 315
Type: Non-Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-099-59785-8
First Published: 4th June 2015
Date Reviewed: 27th April 2016
Rating: 4/5

O’Sullivan is a doctor of Neurology and her particular interest is in Psychosomatic Illness. Here she reccounts stories of patients, talks about the history of somatic illness – hysteria, neurasthenia – in a bid to bring more light onto a subject she feels isn’t taken seriously enough.

It’s All In Your Head is an unfortunately titled work that nevertheless pulls itself away from its cover to be something rather important and informative.

First things first – I’m no doctor. I can’t vouch for O’Sullivan’s research or anything like that, but I will say she deals with illness and disease objectively in most cases. Her book is well-written – it’s not dry and the pages turn swiftly; there’s a sense she wanted to bring an element of the style of fiction (not fiction itself, of course) to make the book more readable. It works.

O’Sullivan is on a mission to get Psychosomatic Illness taken more seriously and for the most part she does this with flying colours. Yes, there are many stories that are not concluded – presumably this is because she doesn’t always see patients a second time – but she does follow through when she can. The only thing is that many chapters supposedly based on one patient – chapters are named for the patient at hand – drift off to others.

This is very much a medical history book as much as one on modern day care. O’Sullivan gives a substantial amount of time, split up over the chapters – which means it never becomes too heavy – to detailing the progression of medical findings and beliefs. She details Hippocrates’ thoughts, those of Galen, and spends time on Charcot and Freud, who both went to lengths to work out what was going on. She speaks of the social thinking that weighed on prognoses, for example the ‘hysteria’ largely considered a female problem that was down to the female reproductive system and the way the uterus would move around the body (yes, they really thought that happened – where the organ could go without people having a moving deformity at times is anyone’s guess). This information may not really achieve anything as such, but it brings a bit of variety to an otherwise understandably repetitive work. (This said, O’Sullivan does literally repeat herself on occasion, and you’ll be wondering if you’re experiencing déjà vu or just don’t have the knowledge to note the specifics.)

O’Sullivan is objective and honest in regards to herself. She speaks openly of her youthful giggles when someone who said they couldn’t see showed signs that they could. She speaks of times she made the wrong decisions. And she goes very boldly into controversial territory, speaking out about CFS which she considers to be caused by psychological issues. This section may well put readers off, and she is very strong in her view with less source work than she otherwise uses. She knows her opinion is unpopular. And O’Sullivan’s conclusion is very firm – disabilities caused by Psychosomatic Illness should be on a par, culturally and socially, with physical disabilities caused organically (a ‘regular’ cause if you will – Cerebral Palsy, MS, paralysis due to an accident).

It’s All In Your Head talks about an important issue in medicine that needs more research. It details how someone can have a physical reaction to emotional trauma and that as such the trauma should be addressed rather than the patient laughed out of the room, but it does go a bit too far on occasion.

I received this book at the Wellcome Book Prize blogger’s brunch.

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Tracy Terry

July 6, 2016, 4:02 pm

Whilst drawn to this book – I find the subject matter fascinating – all too often I come away from this kind of read feeling as if I’ve been prying.

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