Pharmakon: a Greek word that can be used to mean both the cure and the poison.
As a writer, Zach Friedrich is aware that the story of his own life—like that of every man—truly begins with his father. The protagonist of Dirk Wittenborn’s Pharmakon is just four years old when he spies something odd in a family photo album and realizes that the facts of his existence are more complicated than he thought. But only when he’s an adult does Zach appreciate the full irony of how deeply his family’s history is intertwined with the birth and rise of modern psychopharmacology.
Zach opens the narrative three years before his own birth when his father, Will Friedrich, is “a thirty-three-year-old untenured, overworked, hollow-eyed ambitious associate professor of psychology at Yale with a wife, four children, a mortgage, and eighty-seven dollars in his bank account.” He will go on to achieve both wealth and fame but in 1951, Will is still desperate to prove himself and blissfully unaware of how his ambitions will soon result in two deaths and nearly destroy his family.
At that time, Yale is “the Promised Land for psychologists” and Will is fortunate that an early success had gotten him there—but his career is stalled and he can’t even afford decent Christmas presents for his kids. As he sits nursing bitterness and beers in the faculty club, Will stumbles upon the opportunity he’s been waiting for.
Psychiatrist Bunny Winton is beautiful, wealthy, and the only female faculty member at Yale medical school in 1951. While stationed in the New Guinea during World War II, she learned about an indigenous plant with curious properties. The local headhunters’ shaman would use kwina (AKA gai kau dong, GKD, or The Way Home) to soothe away bad memories and help the tribe deal with the tragedies of life. Desperate to help a soldier so traumatized by the savagery of his wartime captivity that he attempts suicide, she prescribes this primitive antidepressant. It seems to work—but the soldier is killed in battle before she has a chance to see if there are any long-term side effects. Winton has left gai kau dong behind—until Will overhears her reminiscences and shows up at her door with two satchels full of kwina leaves and a proposition she can’t refuse.
The two begin testing GKD first on rats and then on humans and the results are impressive. One subject overcomes his fear of heights and becomes a pilot, another becomes less angry and stops hitting her child, but Casper Gedsic—a lonely, suicidal freshman—undergoes an even more stunning transformation.
When Will first meets Casper, he is impressed by both the scholarship student’s obvious genius and his debilitating awkwardness. It is, in fact, pity that prompts Will to include Casper as a subject despite Winton’s objections. Yet Will is unsettled by Casper’s metamorphoses into a glib, confident young man. He suspects he may simply be envious of Casper’s sudden sexual and financial success but Will is a man who’s based a career on his unerring instincts and, when the experiment is over, Casper, Will, and everyone in their orbit—including the yet-to-be-born Zach—will feel the repercussions of their emotional tampering for the rest of their lives.
From the prim and proper 1950s through the strung out hippie era and the amped-up 80s, Wittenborn takes us on one family’s journey through personal upheaval and a nation’s unruly relationship with drugs—both pharmacological and recreational. Brilliantly imagined and ruefully funny, Pharmakon is a classic American epic about family, ambition, and the price we are willing to pay for happiness.
Dirk Wittenborn is a novelist and screenwriter whose books have been published in more than a dozen countries. He is the Emmy-nominated producer of the HBO documentary Born Rich and the coauthor and coproducer of The Lucky Ones, a feature film about American soldiers returning from Iraq. He lives in New York City.
Q. Your own father was a psychopharmacologist and your mother was his research assistant. How much of Will, Nora, and the rest of the Friedrich clan are based on your own family?
My family is like the Friedrichs in that our lives have been haunted by a tragedy that occurred over a half century ago. The seminal event of Pharmakon actually happened. My father was an assistant professor of psychology at Yale in the early 50s. A troubled former student and patient of my father’s appeared in front of our house while my parents and siblings were planting tulips. He seemed lost. My mother was about to ask him if she could help him when my father suddenly whispered, “Don’t look up and don’t say a word.” My mother was stunned when my father revealed that he had only recently learned the psychologically troubled ex-student had written a death list that contained the names of those he felt were responsible for his unhappiness. My father’s name was at the top of that list. For reasons I will never be certain of, the former student with the grudge passed them by that day. The second name on the death list was a psychiatrist at Yale who had also treated the young man and who lived in the neighborhood. My father tried warn the psychiatrist, but was unable to reach him. Several hours later the ex-student shot the psychiatrist to death.
I was born several years later. The killer was institutionalized. My family did not discuss the tragedy, but it was alluded to. I knew something bad had happened. Most important, I knew that the bogeyman was real for my family—on at least one occasion this highly intelligent and crazed killer escaped from the state mental hospital.
My father was as narcissistic, ambitious, charming, and demanding as Friedrich. He also shared Friedrich’s intelligence, paranoia, and grandiosity, and like Friedrich was a pioneer in the field of psychopharmacology. I noticed early on that he and the scientists he worked with—those who devoted their lives to synthesizing happiness—seemed innately mistrustful of happiness. When I was about thirteen, I confronted my father and said, “If I’m such a disappointment, why’d you even have me?” It was then he told me “I had you because a man I’d tried to help came to kill me and my family. And I said to myself, ‘You bastard, you. You’re not going to deny my life. I’m going to have another child.’ ” Then he paused and added obliquely, “And I was lonely.” To say the least, not the healthiest thing for a psychologist to tell an adolescent. But it gave me an inkling of where he was coming from.
My father was not as hands-on in drug research as Will Friedrich, and to my knowledge, he was not involved in any experiments at Yale similar to the drug study Will and Bunny conducted in the novel. Another major difference between the Friedrichs and my family is that I did not have a sibling who suffered the fate of Jack.
The Friedrichs have some of the same personality traits as my as my own family, and like all novelists, I draw on my own life. I altered each of the Friedrichs in ways large and small to make them more clearly represent the hopes, dreams, and disappointments of their respective generations.
Q. Many authors begin their writing career with an autobiographical, coming-of-age novel that exorcises their demons. You are in your fifties. Why did you wait until now?
The power of youth is such that I think it’s difficult to truly understand the inner workings/motivations/shortcomings of a middle-aged parent until you are halfway through your own life and have a child yourself. Having an eminent psychologist for a father and a not entirely happy childhood, I ran from his world as soon as I left home for college. Despite a growing awareness of my own psychological problems, I did not seek professional help until after my father died—I felt about psychologists and psychology in general the way one who had been abused by a priest might feel about the church—I saw it as the cause of many of my problems, not the answer to them. My father’s work was also so scientifically sophisticated, for many years I was daunted by the amount of information and research I would have to familiarize myself with in order to write the novel that had been fermenting in me since I was a teenager.
I guess it’s also worth noting that throughout my life, I loved my father, and was close to him—I think I did not want to write that until I felt both equipped to understand and forgive him.
Q. Your wife is a psychologist. Is that a coincidence or are you somehow drawn to the profession?
As my wife would say, nothing in life is a coincidence. In fact, she became a psychologist several years after we met, and coincidentally, the head of her doctorate program was one of my father’s former grad students. Most important of all, being a psychologist, my wife was able to give me a crash course in psychology and was immensely helpful in writing Pharmakon.
Q. Your writing career has been peripatetic to say the least. You published a novel shortly after college, wrote briefly for Saturday Night Live, and then moved on to writing for the movies and returned to fiction relatively recently.
The glib answer to that question is, I realized I wasn’t grown up enough to write the novels I wanted to write until I was middle-aged. In truth, I’ve always thought of myself as a novelist who also wrote screenplays. Though my forays into comedy and screenwriting might seem tangential, regardless of genre, I have always been intrigued by the same themes—how do we make sense of what has happened to us, what we have done to ourselves, and what can we change.
Q. Certain aspects of the novel are left deliberately vague. Most important: Casper’s decision to spare first Will and then Zach. Why did you construct the story this way? Who is your ideal reader?
What our parents and our siblings tell us teaches us and shapes us. But what truly defines us is not what know, it is what we don’t know. Conversations we are not privy to, secrets that are never shared with us—the unknowns, the blanks in our case histories that we have to fill in for ourselves are the key variables in the equation that makes us who we are. I think this is true of my family and of every family. As to my ideal reader, anyone that has a family, anyone who’s been depressed, anyone who’s had a crazy thought, anyone who has wished they felt different about things or, as Will Friedrich would say, anyone who realizes “We are complicated creatures.”
Q. In many ways, Lazlo is the happiest character in the book. He’s a morbid, cynical Holocaust survivor but his womanizing and drug abuse are uncomplicated by moral qualms or physical repercussions. Is it his early brush with death that makes him enjoy life more fully? Or are you suggesting that Americans have an uncanny ability to make themselves unhappy?
I don’t think Lazlo’s early brush with death, the nightmare of the Holocaust, makes him enjoy life more fully, but it does makes him realize that happiness, joy, is the exception, not the rule in life. He, like all cynics, is a disappointed romantic. He accepts that most of life is a state of discontent, if not disappointment. In some ways, Lazlo represents a European sensibility. I think an obsession with happiness is part of the American Dream. Immigrants, past and present, come to America in the hopes of being happier–it is so integral to our national character, our inalienable right to “the pursuit of happiness” is guaranteed in the Declaration of Independence. The promise of a better life drives the American experience. We don’t necessarily make ourselves unhappy, but our expectations are often so unrealistic, we feel shortchanged.
Q. The Wintons and later Lucy are among the super rich. One of your previous novels, Fierce People, is about this elite group. What is it—besides their wealth—that makes them so different from everyone else?
Most people in the world secretly (and sometimes not so secretly) believe that if they were rich, they would be happier. They don’t think money buys happiness, but they believe money rents it. The dream of wealth is the carrot that drives many, if not most, Americans. The very rich are different from us only in that since they already have the great wealth most of us can only fantasize about, they know what it can’t purchase. They have tasted the carrot, they know its limits and in that regard, I think they are far more disillusioned and less hopeful than those of us who can’t pay our credit card bills.
Q. Like Zach, you’ve joked that you “used cocaine homeopathically” (p. 353). What are your thoughts about America’s relationship with drugs? How much of our contemporary society do you believe is shaped by the prominence and availability of psychopharmaceuticals?
In America, well over a hundred million prescriptions are written for antidepressants a year. When you consider that alcohol is also a drug, and add to that the millions who obtain mind-altering drugs illegally, it seems obvious America feels the need to alter its mood. People don’t take drugs or drink or get high in the hopes of feeling sadder or worse about themselves. We want a sense of well being that the reality of our lives doesn’t always supply us with.
I believe antidepressants and psychoactive drugs in certain cases have therapeutic value, but I think we’re hugely overdependent on them. Many people prefer the quick fix, rather than the long and arduous process of figuring out the roots of their unhappiness. I worry that often when children are given antidepressants and psychoactive drugs throughout their adolescence into young adulthood, they don’t have a real sense of identity, or rather, their identity is in part the personality of the drug they’re taking. Technological breakthroughs, from the wheel to the home computer, have changed our lives. But psychopharmacology is changing us. It is a Pharmakon; whether it is ultimately the poison or the cure remains to be seen.
Q. What are you working on now?
I divide my life between novels and screenplays. I have recently started a new novel and am writing a screenplay called The Criminals for Universal with Neil Burger, who directed Interview with an Assassin, The Illusionist, and the soon-to-be released The Lucky Ones.