Meet the author and neuropsychologist AK Benjamin is a bit like a meeting with a spy or a defender witnesses. First of all, AK Benjamin is not his real name. It does not mean what it is. Where he lives. "Asia" is as accurate as its current address. He will not say where he was from England – his accent suggests that it was not far from Manchester – or what university he went to, or where he worked. But he is willing to disclose some details. There are clues about his age – from midlife to the end. In addition to being a trained neuropsychologist – that is, a psychologist working with people with neurological disorders or injuries – he was a screenwriter in the British film industry, he created a charity, was a California monk and worked with gang members. in US prisons and South American sex workers, is the father of two daughters and, for a decade, alcoholic and self-destructive addict.
It looks like five different lives have crashed, which is, curiously, the impression that Benjamin gives in flesh and bone. Not through everything he says, but just what he looks like, with an aura of intensity that seems to fly over him like an electrical storm.
Despite his shaven head, he does not look like a monk. And nowadays, this is not the case, but he does not look like a monk or a neuropsychologist. He has a fleeting resemblance with Kiefer Sutherland in the era of Jack Bauer – stiff but muscular and tightly coiled. As it is said, he seems to be able to look after himself, even though, in many ways, taking care of himself has been a struggle for Benjamin, even though he has not been able to take care of himself. he cared for others. This struggle and the fate of those in charge are the subject of his first book, Let me not be crazy.
It is initially a series of case studies in which a neuropsychologist organizes clinics with different patients. For example, there is a woman, known only as "you", who, slipping into premature dementia, pierces the heart of the professional. There is "Michael", a very active businessman who suffers from a brain injury base jump who transforms his personality – or does he allow the emergence of the one he repressed? There are also other patients who may or may not be versions of the narrator – namely the neuropsychologist – undergoing psychological assessment.
On the surface, the stories are told with this precise clinical detachment – jargon and protocols explained – familiar in many medical memoirs. But the style is almost ironic because underneath is a wave of compassion, dark comedy and clever personal observation that constantly threatens to break through. Slowly, we begin to see that the clinician is also suffering. As encounters become more uncertain and even surreal, it becomes apparent that during episodes of paranoia, insomnia, aggression and delirium, the person most at risk for to lose the head is, in fact, the narrator. So why the pseudonym and the mystery that surrounds it?
"Because I want to protect people who know me, the people I've treated and will deal with in the future," he told me in a King's Cross coffee shop. He fears that patients do not project themselves into the book or that some are disturbed, as he says so well, "to see me incarnate by degrading myself".
To deflate? It's certainly a strange and powerful job of … well, what exactly? You can not call it a memory, although drawn from one's life, it is written through a fictional filter that is sometimes dark and distorting. But then it's not a novel either. On the contrary, it occupies this territory more and more disputed between fiction and non-fiction, where most of the most intriguing writers of today meet. Benjamin mentions Ben Lerner and Emmanuel Carrère, both hard to classify, as writers he admires.
"I have always experienced the world in one way or another." Illustration: The Project Twins / The Observer
The first writer who hired young Benjamin was Fyodor Dostoevsky. He was a troubled boy, he said, upset by his parents' divorce and disturbed by the transition from school to school. From a very young age, he felt that he was out of place and knew that life was going to be difficult. Then he read Crime and Punishment. "I had never read a book before," he recalls. At the same time, he discovers alcohol and girls. The combination of high literature, alcohol and romance has proven painfully irresistible. What followed was drinking, drugs, grief – and books that gave chaos meaning. He managed to go to university, but was asked to take a sabbatical year because of his alcohol and drug abuse. Nevertheless, he had the intention of becoming an academic. Then he fell in love with a woman who was embarking on the film industry. So he decided to follow her.
He describes it as a "catastrophic" period of his life. While everyone else seemed to realize that there was a serious problem with what they were doing, he said to himself, "We are in a playground, what is the point of returning home now when we can stay in outside?" Was he an excessive drinker? "Yeah, but I binged every night." What drugs did he use? "Mainly things that helped to drink. Coca-Cola and speed. "
Benjamin's dreams of making complex art and essay films are going nowhere. At 28, after touching what he describes as "the bottom," he decided to become sober. He joined AA and NA, but his way of living with a life without drink or drugs was to create a charity for homeless people with problems of alcohol and drug use. He still had a lot of anger built up, that he was trying to channel to Thai boxing. "I became semi-professional," he says, "but I was constantly trying to find out if I could bring that guy and that guy along at the same time. So it was not helpful.
He began visiting retreats in the UK and then joined a monastery on the west coast of America where he lived as a monk. He sang psalms and read philosophy, between helping gang members and sex workers. He says he has long wanted to help people worse off than him, especially as a coping mechanism. "I think I have always experienced the world in one way or another. I do not want to make myself exceptional, but at the same time, there are aspects of life that I find extremely difficult. Being with people who have gotten much worse is a useful way. "
While he was a monk – not an environment known for his procreation opportunities – he realized that he wanted to have children. And it was then that he met a spiritual mentor who told him that he should be working in neuroscience and psychology and spend his life writing about it. And that's exactly what he did. He returned to the UK, returned to university at the age of 32, graduated as a clinical psychologist and did not complete his studies until he was 44 years old. He had seen his patients for about eight years.
There are certain aspects of life that I found very difficult
He met a partner and they quickly had two girls. Is paternity the experience that he hoped for? He thinks a moment. "It's a story that says," Since becoming a parent, I've been the second most important person in my life and it's such a relief. That's not what I lived. It's another level of guilt, another feeling of failure, "he says.
It sounds bleak, but Benjamin is one of those for whom clumsy honesty will always come before social niceties. However, he smiles broadly when he speaks of the "pleasure and the exuberant joy" that he gains from rubbing shoulders with his children.
He also drew a lot of satisfaction from his work. "Building relationships with people who are on the verge of devastating neurological devastation or on the other side is extremely helpful," he says. But he found the neurological departments of the NHS too restrictive and the medical environment more and more alienating. "When you do an interview for clinical training," he says, "you are told not to say that you are moved to do something like this because you care about people, because it's considered a woolly and unscientific bullshit. But this was the reason I wanted to do it. "
He argues that health professionals neglect the sensitivity of patients. The way in which initial consultations are conducted is, he says, "extremely important in setting the tone and raising awareness". According to him, most doctors are terrible because they are too determined to establish their authority rather than to assess the psychological or emotional needs of the patient.
Although he has not suffered the failure he describes in Let me not be crazyhe has suffered from what he calls "exhaustion". The relationship with the mother of her children did not survive. He moved, took a sabbatical and went to Asia.
What impact did this time have on his children? "The relationship seems solid, but there is certainly a benefit to them," he says of his pre-teen daughter who, when she discovered that he was writing a book and his title, suggested with the same acid language his father that his name is "Do not let me be a dad". They have reached an agreement to spend more time with them in the future.
I still say that I can not imagine it in a sedentary and conventional life. "Thank you," he said, pretending to be offended. "Everything has changed now. I'm in a stable … "He's about to affect a new contentment, but stops, admitting he can not maintain the fiction. He tells me he's working on a book now called The case of love, which will involve other clinical vignettes.
"He's trying to figure out how good we are at loving some people and not loving others," he says. I guess that's unlikely, it's a romantic book, but if his first, richly impressive, literary work leaves something to be desired, he will expose these troubling truths that lie at the base of our psyche, where few are enough brave or crazy enough to venture.
Let me not be crazy: a story of witty wits by AK Benjamin, Vintage, £ 16.99 or £ 14.95 at guardianbookshop.com