A review of Unlike the Heart by Nicola Redhouse

Reviewed by Magdalena Ball

Unlike the Heart
by Nicola Redhouse
University of Queensland Press
ISBN: 9780702260339, March 19, 296pages, paperback

Most parents experience some form of anxiety when their children are born, but the kind of anxiety Nicola Redhouse experienced with the birth of her first child Reuben was overwhelming, going well beyond shifting hormones and sense of love and fear around caring for a new life. Redhouse experienced the usual maternal feelings of intense joy, relief and the physical pain of postpartum — particularly since Reuben was a large baby — but she also felt something else: the feeling of “falling at great speed down a black hole. Being un-born.” As the daughter of a well-known psychotherapist, Redhouse was well-versed in the processes of talk therapy, and sought help from her long-standing analyst Dr Parkes, but the crying and emotional terror didn’t abate. What started off as a personal pathology became almost a vocation for Redhouse as she began to work through her own suffering towards a more intellectual and universal understanding of her condition. The result is an unusual and fascinating memoir/nonfiction exploration that encompasses her own deep understanding of psychological processes, her personal experiences and the links between those and her family’s broader experiences and trauma.

Unlike the Heart presents as a memoir, tracking the particulars of Redhouse’s intense postpartum anxiety, but it quickly opens out into an exploration of the human mind and its frailty, the nature of genetic inheritance, Freud and the fraught relationship between parent and child, and indeed the entire history of psychoanalysis and its relationship to neuroscience. Redhouse is an exceptional science writer, and her research is extensive, making connections, incorporating anecdotes both personal and as part of her research, so that the overall effect is engaging, open-minded, informative and powerful. The hybrid effect allows for multiple perspectives that remain open-ended rather than didactic. Throughout the book, the work slips smoothly between the personal and the universal, utilising Redhouse’s own trauma to get at questions that reference everyone:

I had begun to think of my body as sick. I was sympathetic to myself and accepting of the slow passing of time and the idea of incremental improvement and cellular healing and respite as long as I thought of what I felt as bodily. My neutrons adjusting, getting used to the inhibition for the re uptake of my serotonin, which was a concept I found both abstract and inconceivable in its almost double negativity: Was serotonin good or bad? Was it that I needed more or less? (94)

The book is divided into three parts. The first pivots around the birth of Redhouse’s first son, Reuben, and her search for relief from the debilitating anxiety she experiences, and works through her psychoanalysis sessions with Dr Parkes, her family history and transitions, the second part is more philosophical, exploring the very nature of psychoanalysis, including an extensive history of Freudian analysis, and an exploration of the therapy she has been receiving, including the use of medication and Buddhist therapy. The rough timeframe is through and around the birth of Redhouse’s second son, Noah. The third part involves a trip to Holland with her father Aaron for a neuropsychoanalytic congress, where Redhouse meets with South African neuropsychologist and psychoanalystMark Solms, and explores how a biological approach to the mind relates to a psychological one. In the context of Redhouse’s story, this meeting feels like a eureka moment, tying together the disparate threads of her struggle, but also allowing for a clear connection between the biological, empirical science of the brain, and the ‘hard problem’ of consciousness and behaviour.

Unlike the Heart manages to be both a primer on the nature of postnatal anxiety and the way the brain works, and an exploration of the subtle interlinks between history and pathology. The book is beautifully written, and the balance between the personal and the scholarly are handled deftly throughout. The prose is always light, informative, and engaging:

There was no definitive biological marker in me that was the answer to all this. My desire for such a thing was only a desire to be able to contain my experience, to gain some control over it. Freud himself, even before the explosion of our knowledge about genetics, embraced the convergence of nature and nature in mental experience. (216)

Redhouse’s research encompasses many different subject areas: pharmacology. genetics, epigenetics, and an exploration of trauma and its role in postnatal depression. Interwoven with the theoretical are the stories of Redhouse’s parents: her mother Maxine and her father Aaron and their divorce and subsequent partners, their move to Australia from South Africa, Redhouse’s relationships with her husband Gideon, and her sister Joni, a pragmatic medical researcher who calls the entire discipline of psychoanalysis into question. There is Redhouse’s maternal grandmother Fay, who also experienced postnatal depression and her paternal grandmother Bella, left behind in South Africa to nurse her own separation anxiety. These stories provide historical context, and a great deal of interest to the extensive research. Unlike the Heart a deeply engaging read that embodies the complexity of what Redhouse is exploring in its unique structure, the depth of its research and the unique combination of intimacy and academic rigour.