Meeting the author and neuropsychologist AK Benjamin is bit like an encounter with a spy or someone in witness protection. First of all, AK Benjamin is not his real name. He doesn’t want to say what that is. Or where he lives. “Asia” is as specific as he gets about his current address. He won’t say where in England he was originally from – his accent suggests it wasn’t too far from Manchester – or which university he went to, or where he has worked. But there are some details he is prepared to divulge. There are hints at his age – mid-to-late 40s. Aside from being a trained neuropsychologist – that is, a psychologist who works with people with neurological conditions or injuries – he has been a scriptwriter in the British film industry, he set up a charity, was a monk in California, has worked with gang members in US prisons and South American sex workers, is a father of two daughters, and for a decade was a self-destructive alcoholic and drug addict.
It sounds like five different lives crashed into one, which is, curiously, very much the impression Benjamin gives in the flesh. Not through anything he says, but just the way he looks, with an aura of intensity that seems to hover over him like an electrical storm.
Despite his close-cropped head, he doesn’t look like a monk. And nowadays he’s not, but he doesn’t look like someone who was ever a monk or, come to that, a neuropsychologist. He bears a passing resemblance to Kiefer Sutherland in his Jack Bauer days – wiry but muscular and tightly wound. He looks, as they say, as if he could look after himself, although looking after himself has in many respects been a struggle for Benjamin, even as he was looking after others. This struggle and the plight of those in his care are the subject of his first book, Let Me Not Be Mad.
It starts out as a series of case studies in which a neuropsychologist holds clinics with various patients. There is, for example, a woman, known only as “You”, who, slipping into premature dementia, pierces the professional’s heart. There’s “Michael”, an all-action businessman who suffers a brain injury while base-jumping that transforms his personality – or does it enable emergence of the one he’d been repressing? There are also other patients who may or may not be versions of the narrator – ie the neuropsychologist – undergoing psychological assessment.
On the surface the stories are told with that precise clinical detachment – jargon and protocols explained – familiar from many medical memoirs. But the style is almost ironic because beneath it there is a great swell of compassion, black comedy and astute personal observation constantly threatening to break through. Slowly we begin to see that the clinician is also suffering. As the encounters grow more uncertain and even surreal, it becomes evident that during episodes of paranoia, insomnia, aggression and delusion, the person most in danger of losing his mind is, in fact, the narrator. So why the pseudonym and surrounding mystery?Advertisement
“Because I want to protect people who know me, the people I’ve treated and who I will treat in the future,” he tells me in a café in King’s Cross. He’s worried patients might project things from the book on to themselves, or that some might be disturbed, as he puts it, “to see an incarnation of me debasing myself”.
Debasing? It’s certainly a strange and powerful work of… well, what exactly? You can’t call it a memoir as although drawn from his life, it’s written through a fictionalised filter that, at times, is dark and distorting. But then nor is it a novel. If anything, it occupies that increasingly disputed borderland between fiction and nonfiction, where many of today’s most intriguing writers gather. Benjamin mentions Ben Lerner and EmmanuelCarrère, both of whom are difficult to categorise, as writers he admires.
The first writer that engaged young Benjamin was Fyodor Dostoevsky. He was a troubled boy, he says, upset by his parents’ divorce and unsettled by moving from school to school. From an early age, he felt he didn’t fit in and he knew life was going to be difficult. Then he read Crime and Punishment. “I hadn’t read a book before that,” he recalls. At the same time he discovered alcohol and girls. The combination of high literature, booze and romance proved painfully irresistible. What followed was drink, drugs, heartbreak – and books that made sense of the chaos. He managed to make it to university, but was asked to take a year out because of his alcohol and drug abuse. Nevertheless he had plans to become an academic. Then he fell in love with a woman who was going into the film industry. So he decided to follow her.
He describes it as a “catastrophic” time in his life. While everyone else seemed to realise that there was a serious point to what they were doing, he just thought: “We’re in a playground, what’s the point of going home now when we can stay out?” Was he a binge drinker? “Yeah. But I binged every night.” What drugs was he using? “Mainly things that helped with the drinking. Coke and speed.”
Benjamin’s dreams of making elaborate arthouse films went nowhere. At 28, having hit what he describes as “rock bottom”, he decided to get sober. He joined AA and NA, but his way of dealing with life without drink and drugs was to set up a charity for homeless people with drink and drug problems. He still had a lot of pent-up anger, which he tried to channel into Thai boxing. “I got to semi-professional status,” he says, “but I was just constantly working out if I could take that guy and that guy at the same time. So that wasn’t useful.”
He started visiting retreats in the UK and then joined a monastery on the west coast of America, living as a monk. He sang psalms and read philosophy, in between helping gang members and sex workers. He says he’s long had an urge to help people worse off than himself, partly as a coping mechanism. “I think I’ve always experienced the world quite intensely one way or another. I don’t want to make myself exceptional, but at the same time there are aspects of being alive that I’ve found extremely difficult. Being around people who have got it much worse has been one helpful way.”
While he was a monk – not an environment renowned for procreative possibilities – he realised he wanted to have children. And it was then he met a spiritual mentor who told him he should work in neuroscience and psychology and spend his life writing about it. And that’s precisely what he did. He returned to the UK, went back to university at 32, qualified as a clinical psychologist and didn’t complete his studies entirely until he was 44, by which time he’d been seeing patients for about eight years.
He met a partner and they quite quickly had two girls. Was fatherhood the experience that he’d hoped for? He thinks for a while. “There’s a narrative that goes, ‘Ever since I became a parent I’ve been the second most important person in my life and it’s such a relief.’ That’s not been my experience. It’s been another level of guilt, another sense of failure,” he says.
That sounds bleak, but Benjamin is one of those people for whom awkward honesty will always come before social niceties. However, he does break into a broad smile when talking about the “pleasure and exuberant joy” he gains from being around his children.
He also derived a lot of satisfaction from his job. “Building up relationships with people who are either on the brink of some terrible neurological devastation or on the other side of it is tremendously meaningful,” he says. But he found NHS neurological departments too restrictive and the medicalised environment increasingly alienating. “When you do an interview for clinical training,” he says, “you’re told not to say you were moved to do something like this because you care for people, because that’s regarded as woolly, anti-scientific bullshit. But that was the reason I wanted to do it.”
He argues that patient sensitivities are overlooked by health professionals. The way first consultations are conducted is, he says, “hugely important in setting a tone and raising awareness”. In his opinion most doctors are terrible at it, because they’re too intent on establishing their authority rather than assessing the patient’s psychological or emotional needs.
While he didn’t undergo the breakdown he depicts in Let Me Not Be Mad, he did suffer what he calls “burn-out”. The relationship with the mother of his children didn’t survive. He moved out, took a sabbatical, and headed off to Asia.
What impact has this time away had on his children? “The relationship feels solid, but there’s an edge to them about it for sure,” he says and tells me about his pre-teen daughter who, when she discovered he was writing a book and its title, suggested with the same acid tongue of her father that it should be called “Let Me Not Be Dad”. They have reached an agreement that he’s going to spend more time with them in the future.
All the same, I say, I can’t picture him in a settled, conventional life. “Thanks,” he says, pretending to take offence. “That’s all changed now. I’m in a stable…” He’s about to affect a new-found contentment, but stops, admitting he can’t maintain the fiction. He tells me he’s working on a book now called The Case for Love, which will involve further clinical vignettes.
“It tries to work out how we’re capable of loving certain people and not capable of loving others,” he explains. It is unlikely, I suspect, to be a romantic, feel-good kind of book, but if his first richly impressive literary work is anything to go by, it will expose those unsettling truths that lie at that base of our psyches, where few us are brave enough or mad enough to venture.