Day after day, night after night, the desperate men come and sit in the black chair next to Charles Barber’s desk in a basement office at Bellevue and tell of their travails, of prison and AIDS and heroin, of crack and methadone and sexual abuse, and the voices that plague them. In the silence between the stories, amid the peeling paint, musty odor, and flickering fluorescent light, Barber observes that this isn’t really where he is supposed to be.
How this child of privilege, the product of Andover and Harvard and Columbia, came to find himself at home among the homeless of New York City is just one story Barber tells in Songs from the Black Chair. Interlaced with his memoir, and illuminating the nightmare of mental illness that gripped him after his friend’s suicide, are the stories of his confidants at Bellevue and the “mental health” shelters of Manhattan—men so traumatized by the distortions of their lives and minds that only in the chaotic aftermath of 9/11 do they feel in sync with their world. In the intertwined narrative of these troubled lives and his own, Charles Barber brings to shimmering light some of the most disturbing and enduring truths of human nature.
"An amazing book. . . . Barber is a gifted writer, and the work he has produced is an important addition to the literature of both mental health and New York City."—The Village Voice
"Imaginative and beautifully written, with vivid imagery and wit. . . . Songs from the Black Chair should enjoy a wide audience."—JAMA, Journal of the American Medical Association
"For those who work in mental health services, the best teachers are often those who are themselves mentally ill. Thus, personal accounts that bring us closer to the inner maelstrom of mental illness—books such as William Styron's Darkness Visible, Sylvia Nasar's A Beautiful Mind . . . and now Charles Barber's equally eloquent and insightful Songs from the Black Chair—have long made important contributions to the field. . . . As the title suggests, the book is often less a typical memoir than a 'song'—a free-flowing, lyrical, and imaginative story. . . . Barber's ability to convey the experience of mental illness is striking."—The New England Journal of Medicine
"[A] perceptive gem"—Library Journal Recovery Memoir Roundup (starred review)
“Barber has written a passionate and honest book about those with mental illness. He combines the personal and the political quite subtly. It is also original, which is something to be prized.”—Sue Bond, Metapsychology Online Review
"Barber . . . Isn't afraid of words like 'crazy' or 'madness'; he'd rather render his 'clients' as human characters than as case studies. [Barber] relates [their stories] with detailed vitality and with respect for the tellers. As his obsessive-compulsiveness becomes a pathology, Barber evokes in this compelling and artfully crafted book a sort of cinematic tension; that he survived to tell the tale . . . Doesn't lessen the punch. As in first-person mysteries, Barber is alive and, though not unscathed, balanced at book's end."—Publishers Weekly
"Barber draws a compelling and compassionate portrait of the struggle for peace and clarity of mind."—Booklist
"A beautifully written, and very moving memoir—a story of hope and talent that persists, no matter the tragedies that await any of us at one or another point in our lives."—Robert Coles, James Agee Professor of Social Ethics at Harvard University, Pulitzer Prize–winner, and author of The Spiritual Lives of Children
“A complex and sophisticated memoir by a young man who survived a harrowing brush with mental illness and eventually became, by a roundabout route, a mental health professional. His account of his odyssey is compelling, disturbing, many-faceted, and highly imaginative. I’ve never read another book quite like it.”—William Finnegan, author of Cold New World: Growing up in Harder Country and staff writer for The New Yorker
“Written from inside the belly of the beast, Charles Barber’s Songs soars like a lovely melody above the din of the world, and in juxtaposition to the silence of those who suffer from mental illness of any sort. Engrossing, perceptive, and elegantly written.”—Carlos Eire, author of Waiting for Snow in Havana and winner of the National Book Award
“A valuable, well-written memoir that skillfully interweaves the strands of Barber’s young adult life with his affinity for working with the mentally ill. The author provides many insights.”—Literature, Arts, and Medicine Database
"Tobias Wolff, author of the autobiographical This Boy’s Life, selects the memoirs in the University of Nebraska Press’s American Lives series, and what a beautiful choice he’s made in this modest, bittersweet, story of three boys lives that didn’t turn out as expected."—Wilson Quarterly
"Barber writes well, and some of his comments are delightfully insightful."—Psychiatric Services