Friday, August 11, 2017

Book Review: The Stranger Beside Me

Title: The Stranger Beside Me

Author: Mabel Seeley

Date: 1951

Publisher: Doubleday

ISBN: none

Length: 272 pages

Quote: “Why was it Christine who attracted him?”

The Stranger Beside Me admittedly draws heavily on Karen Horney's studies of “neurotic personalities,” though one has to wonder whether a family or neighborhood drama motivated the writer to create such characters. Carl and Christine are such a matched pair of “neurotics” that they seem an ideal couple. How deceptive appearances can be. The best thing to be said for one half of the unhappy pair is that, when this spouse goes berserk...but that'd be telling.

Have this couple ever known each other? Er, um...would anyone who really knew either of them consent to sit next to them on a train? If anyone poked Christine, a gusher of morbid, thirteen-year-old-type self-obsession would spew out. Carl seems like just another introvert struggling to pass for a “weak” extrovert on a sales job.

Karen Horney earned respect in a difficult time. Her descriptions of “neurotic personalities” were based on sound observations. However, after eighty years of additional research, even those psychologists who still study the learned, socially conditioned aspects of personality have abandoned the vague term “neurotic personality.” In Horney's time people thought they knew what "neurotic personalities" looked like, but there turned out to be several very different kinds of "neurotic personalities." 

As Horney observed and Seeley portrays in this novel, many young people are insecure mainly because they are young. They know they're less mature and competent than other people, and believe themselves to be more inadequate than they are. Other people, many of whom aren't even natural introverts, may be ticking bombs of repressed hostility, or even “schizoid” types whose depression, suspicion, anxiety, or laziness may become a disability.

One strength of Horney's research (and of Seeley's) was that they called attention to the function of social rules about sex roles in shaping “neurotic personalities.” When they were young, it was just obvious that neither shame-bound Christine nor shell-shocked Carl was a natural salesman; the department store hired her as a waitress and him as a floor manager. People expected her to “retire” and have babies before she was twenty-five, and she did; they expected her return to the economic world to be a self-limited effort to make a little money off a hobby, and it is. The expectation that she ought to be somewhat “weak” creates a favorable surprise, though also some whispering about her “competing with” Carl, when she does succeed. 

Although the rules about how men's and women's economic careers are supposed to go most obviously hurt Christine at first, over time we see that they hurt Carl as much or more. He had no chance to face his inner demons. He had to be the breadwinner. Karen Horney didn't get as much recognition as she deserved from 1970s feminists because she recognized that corporate careers hadn't been “liberating” for men like Carl at all, had in fact aggravated their misery, and weren't likely to be "liberating" for women like Christine either. Other men tell Carl he's not “strong” enough. Testosterone both helps men build real physical strength, and gives them a temporary illusion of strength through violent rage and hypertension. Carl isn't diagnosed with cardiovascular syndrome in the course of this novel; in real life, many men like him died from it.

The Stranger Beside Me is an unsatisfying read because the psychology that identified Carl and Christine as “neurotic” failed to explain, prevent, or cure their “neuroses.” There is still no really satisfactory way to identify, much less defuse, ticking-bomb personalities.

Are they “loners”? Some are, but they're not healthy, productive introverts who enjoy whatever they do alone and share it with friends or customers. Some are, like Hitler, failed artists, but even the formula of “failed artist on drugs” does not reliably produce mass murderers (thank goodness). Sometimes failure as a creative artist is partly explained by brain damage, which may also explain the hate and rage some, not all, “loners” eventually act out. In other cases it's explained by lack of talent; the “loner” may not be an introvert at all, but an extrovert with inadequate social skills, a loser by all possible measures, which undoubtedly contributes to the rage some, not all, of these “loners” spew.

If a “loner” who does have a few close friends (even if they're not living in the same house, even if they're not human, even if they're no longer living) and some sort of talent (even if it's not marketable) is safe to have as a neighbor or co-worker, but a “loner” who is really friendless and talentless is might guess that the real ticking-bomb type might lie (even to himself) and say he has friends and interests, while having none. This is, unfortunately, still true, as portrayed in the novel.

And although The Stranger Beside Me is a readable outside view of how the ticking bomb's miserable life goes, it doesn't really tell us more than we already knew. It leaves us a little closer to some answers than Horney was able to come in 1951, but not much. As a result, although The Stranger Beside Me is a credible novel, I found it an unsatisfactory read.

This probably explains why 99 out of 100 Gentle Readers are not in the small niche market for this novel. If, however, this review is making you think, “Mmm, research!”, then The Stranger Beside Me is for you. Read it and ask yourself whether you want to spend your life looking for ways to help people like Carl and Christine.

The usual terms apply: $5 per book, $5 per package, $1 per online payment. Mabel Seeley wrote several other novels, some classified as mystery rather than suspense stories, and any four of them would probably fit into one $5 package.