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Insomniac (book review)

September 25, 2008

(This review also appeared on Women’s Voices For Change.)


Gayle Greene

University of California Press

503 pages

“Insomniac” is an impressive, multidisciplinary review of theories and research about the causes and treatments of insomnia. It is also an eloquent memoir of one woman’s sleepless nights and search for answers. Greene also draws on the experiences of other insomniacs, both from her own correspondence and from historical and cultural research. The result is a far reaching narrative that raises questions about the nature of sleep as well as the limitations of science.

Greene’s background in literary studies,  and her drive to find answers about her own insomnia help her trace the mysteries of sleep, and the stigma often attached to insomnia in the modern medical community.   She traces insomniacs’ self-reports and the medical community’s findings as narrative, allowing space for her prose to stretch into highly readable queries about the elemental nature of sleep.   Her attention to cultural views about sleep and sleep disorders, reminds me of Susan Sontag’s “Illness As Metaphor.”

Throughout her survey of the available studies of people with sleep disturbances, the drug industry, and even alternative therapies, she runs up against the commonly held viewpoint that insomniacs bring their sleep troubles upon themselves.  And the suggested treatments are treated as perky, common sense.  Greene, and her fellow insomniacs chafe at the often-repeated conventional wisdom that overcoming sleep disturbance requires only willpower and good sleep hygiene.  Greene raises questions about the unexplored biochemistry of successful sleep as well as insomnia.  She also points out some of the flawed  assumptions inherent in sleep centers, drug advertising, and the other ways beliefs about insomnia have become fixed in the popular imagination.

Most striking is the refrain Greene repeats throughout her narrative.  There are many gaps in the research, under-funded, under-examined, highly individual and complex responses to sleep and lack of sleep.  Fueled by her own frustrations and lifelong quest for a good night sleep, her cry for further research seems stunning.  It points out larger issues about the culture of medicine, the business of medicine, and the way patients can be shortchanged unless they meet specific criteria.

This book will appeal most to insomniacs, whether lifelong sufferers or victims of a few sleep-deprived nights.  And they may hand it to their loved ones as a guide to the magnitude of their difficulty.  But, anyone who enjoys good, clear science writing should give this book a chance.  Greene has written an insightful exploration of attitudes about sleep and sleeplessness, and even larger questions about the nature of consciousness: the constant struggle to understand subjective, versus objective reality.

thanks to Jill Danzig and University of California Press for sending me a copy to review on my blog.

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