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by Francine Cournos
Plume, 1999
Review by Christian Perring, Ph.D. on Nov 12th 2002

City of One

Francine Cournos’ memoir of her life focuses mainly on her childhood and the effects the loss of her parents had on her.  She was born in the 1940s, with an older brother and a younger sister; her family lived in the South Bronx, and her father died unexpectedly when she was three.  Her mother developed breast cancer and endured many surgeries, but her health degenerated until she died when Couros was just eleven. 

Couros has surprisingly vivid memories of her childhood.  After her father’s death, her mother never talked about him.  Her mother’s family all lived in the local neighborhood, and her mother’s parents moved in with them for a better financial situation.  But after only two years, her Grandpa died too.  Couros’ whole childhood seemed to be filled with unexplained and swift disappearances, and it is understandable how this could have made her fearful about her future.  She describes her relationship with her mother in detail, and remembers how her mother kept working right through her illness, giving herself injections, breathing hard. 

Of course, Couros received little explanation when her mother died, and she was the one who eventually had to explain to her little sister that their mother had died.  The children stayed living with their grandma, but the old woman was not able or willing to keep up the responsibility.  Within two years, the children were separated, and the family put Cournos and her sister into foster care.  She reflects with amazement that her family was ready to do this, and it is no surprise that she feels somewhat bitter about their action.  Her new foster mother was Erma, and Cournos had a stormy relationship with her.  They lived in Lynbrook, Long Island, and her foster father Jack commuted to work in Queens.  Cournos was close to her sister but became distant from her brother.  Once she went to college, she virtually lost touch with her siblings for many years.

When she left high school for City College, located in Harlem, Cournos soon moved into her own apartment.  She had always been an excellent student, and she knew she wanted to become a doctor.  She achieved her ambition despite the sexism of the profession and the very few women in medical school. She married at 23 but was divorced within a few years.  Eventually she became a psychiatrist.  Although she peppers her narrative of her past with scenes from her future, seeing patients who remind her of her former self, she says little about her profession.  She does say that she felt a sort of communion with her patients, and would be exhausted by their emotional problems.  Nevertheless, she was drawn to care for the sickest, poorest patients whom other psychiatrists were often uninterested in, and when she was in a position of power, she fought hard for those in her care. 

After a period on her own, Cournos married and had a child.  Her life became stable and fulfilled.  Yet when her daughter was not yet two, Cournos developed a deep depression.  She went into psychotherapy, and her therapist suggested that she eventually felt safe enough to let herself feel the anger, fear and sadness she was not allowed to express as a child.  Her depression lasted less than a year, leaving one day in the middle of winter in 1980 – one of the few welcome sudden disappearances in her life.  A couple of years later she went into prolonged psychoanalysis, which she found very helpful, helping a sense of inner peace.  But she still dreaded the return of summers, which brought on unhappy memories of losses, and traveling to unfamiliar locations.  After eight years she also started taking Prozac, and it took her a long time to find the optimal dosage.  Her fears decreased and her psychoanalysis became richer.  Furthermore, her dread of fantasized disasters virtually stopped.  Even the anniversary day of her mother’s death became an opportunity for her to celebrate her mother’s life. 

City of One is written well, and in compressing many facts into a short narrative, it has an admirable terseness.  It would have been interesting to know more about Cournos’ view of the mental profession and the trends and changes over the last decades, but she says enough for the reader to be able to at least have a sense of her views.  The great strength of the book is to highlight her experience as an orphan and the way she suffered as a result of her larger family’s ineptitude in taking good care of her.  As she points out in her Prologue, it is more common these days for children to lose both parents than it was when she was a child, and so there is much to learn from her memoir.  Recommended.


© 2002 Christian Perring. All rights reserved.

Christian Perring, Ph.D., is Chair of the Philosophy Department at Dowling College, Long Island. He is editor of Metapsychology Online Review. His main research is on philosophical issues in psychiatry. He is especially interested in exploring how philosophers can play a greater role in public life, and he is keen to help foster communication between philosophers, mental health professionals, and the general public.