In this weekend’s Wall Street Journal, I review the newly issued US edition of Stephen Johnson’s extraordinary account of music and mental illness, How Shostakovich Changed My Mind.
Mr. Johnson, we learn from his book, suffers from a bipolar condition. He grew up in a dysfunctional family with a depressive father and a violent mother with a severe personality disorder. As a boy, he recalls, “I had to lock myself away to avoid destabilising Mother. . . . If I could have voiced the commandment I unconsciously repeated to myself during that period, it would have been: ‘I must not feel, I must not feel.’ ” Music, he says, was the only space where he could indulge feeling. In his early teens, Mr. Johnson discovered Shostakovich’s fourth symphony… Memorising the symphony—and reveling in its “terrifying mood-swings” and explicit existential threats—Mr. Johnson ran it through his head as a kind of soundtrack as he cycled home from school. “Living with your mother,” his therapist-wife would volunteer, “must have been like that Symphony.”
Read on here.