Sunday, December 13, 2009

Pharmakon, by Dirk Wittenborn

The story of a family - especially the story of one man and one son - who are affected for life by an experiment gone wrong. Also a cautionary tale about psychiatric drugs, albeit a subtle one.

Will Friedrich, an ambitious psychologist struggling as a teacher at Yale University, hears of a plant that has remarkable effects on depressed persons. He embarks on a research project to investigate the properties of the plant with the hope of creating a drug that can lift people from sadness into happiness. Ironically, Friedrich believes sadness is the human condition. Yet he wanted more for some, if not himself.

Friedrich enrolls brilliant yet awkward and very sad young Casper Gedsic in the program. His research partner, Dr. Bunny Winton, senses that this subject may cause difficulty for the project because of his inquisitive mind, yet ultimately she accepts him. With the drug Gedsic experiences changes far beyond anyone's expectations, moving from shy and stuttering to confident and essentially amoral. He doesn't just accept that sad and bad things happen and we must move on, he moves on immediately, even from his own misdeeds. He loses much of his conscience.

The experiment ends and Gedsic runs headlong into withdrawal. Unfortunately, his mind, his brain perhaps, has changed forever, and not in a good way.

Friedrich watches as his prize subject turns homicidal and he ends the research project early. From then on he is haunted by what he has done to an innocent student. He and his family live in the shadow of the disturbed Casper. It colors all of their lives, even those who know nothing about it.

Yes, it is a story about the family and of the coming of age of one member of that family. More, though, it is about how that young man's growth is affected by the decisions of his father, made before he was born. It is the story of our responsibilities toward one another.

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