Ayelet Waldman’s New Book Is Quite the Trip

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Ayelet Waldman
Ayelet WaldmanCredit: Emil Salman
Liat Elkayam
Liat Elkayam
Liat Elkayam
Liat Elkayam

“A Really Good Day: How Microdosing Made a Mega Difference in My Mood, My Marriage, and My Life” by Ayelet Waldman, Penguin Random House, 256 pp., $25.95

I wanna drop some LSD.

Yes, there are so many things to say about Ayelet Waldman’s new book, but the most obvious conclusion after reading it is this: If you happen to have some good-quality LSD, from a recognized and safe source, please bring it over. Now, I’ve done a lot of foolish things in my life, but so far LSD never made the list. I decided I liked my brain too much to fry it, even though I was interested in the drug. I’ve read everything I can on the subject, but reading books, in most cases, has no practical ramifications. It’s a long way from paper muncher to psychedelic lawbreaker.

But Waldman, a former lawyer, has a book that is also a case, one she argues eloquently and convincingly.

She claims that, in tiny doses, LSD can help with a variety of human maladies, both physical and mental. So can marijuana and MDMA , substances that are legally defined as dangerous but which, in particular dosages, can help certain people. That is the bottom line of this book, in which the author bases her claim on a comprehensive and convincing study, on the words of former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan and, more importantly, on her own flesh, blood and sanity.

Sacrificing your own ass/mind? Now that’s what I call impressive.

"A Really Good Day" by Ayelet WaldmanCredit: Penguin Random House

On the face of it, what could be a better job? You do drugs and someone pays you to write what you think about them. Obviously, though, the situation is a lot more complicated when you’re not a 22-year-old hipster but a wife and mother of four. And things get even more complicated when you consider that Waldman, according to her own testimony, is actually an orchid and not a human being, a delicate creature who can only function and prosper under extreme conditions: no noise (particularly not the grinding of almonds); no light (especially at night); no squashy armchairs – and that’s only the beginning.

It seems that if someone were to pick Waldman up and place her in a bubble (and what is Berkeley, where she lives, if not a bubble?), she’d still find something to complain about: her shoulder’s seized up; her husband is too happy; the children aren’t happy enough (at least three of them); the trees aren’t blooming fully. Oy vey. Not exactly the type to drop acid just for fun.

Indeed, fun was not Waldman’s prime motivation, but fun is exactly what she describes. One should make clear that the dosage she chose to imbibe – once every three days for a month – is very low; only one-tenth of a standard dose. This dosage doesn’t produce hallucinations, no Lucy and no diamonds. So what does it do? That’s precisely what Waldman set out to discover.

The motivation for her trip was simple, basic, the main reason any new road is ever charted: pain. Physical and mental suffering, the chronic, unabating kind that doesn’t respond to conventional medication. (In one chapter, Waldman presents readers with a list of all the antidepressants and antianxiety medications she has taken in her life, with their effects – I had to laugh. Been there, done that, can’t remember most of it.)

The idea of using microdoses of LSD came to Waldman – as it did to many others – from a book by psychologist James Fadiman, who is one of the characters in her book. He is an elderly professor who served as her mentor and father figure.

The drug itself, in a blue vial, came from another professor who is identified only as “Lewis Carroll.” Waldman is obviously referencing “Alice in Wonderland,” but the narrator who speaks to us in the book, the character reflected by her words, is much closer to another heroine of children’s literature – Pippi Longstocking.

Ayelet Waldman. Capable of writing a book in three months.Credit: Emil Salman

As much as Waldman tries to convince us in the opening chapters that she is a regular suburban mom – and I wanted to be convinced by the normalcy she describes – ultimately, she is not your typical soccer mom. She is a sharp and brilliant woman who went to Harvard and has been taking MDMA for years.

In order to improve her marriage, she’s capable of writing a book in three months, and has written more than 10 books while raising her children. She has a short fuse and a dirty mouth: in short, she’s quite a character.

And this is why it’s nice to spend time with her. A book that is a combined scientific, empirical, historical and legal review is more commonly written by people from the academic field, technical wordsmiths. Waldman has done a comprehensive and convincing job (contrary to the barbs aimed at her in an annoying New York Times review) blending huge amounts of information into an interesting and provocative book. But more than that, she gave the information a human voice. Nonfiction writing need not necessarily be dry, and seriousness isn’t necessarily a benchmark for quality.

In his 1954 book “The Doors of Perception,” Aldous Huxley wrote: “By its very nature every embodied spirit is doomed to suffer and enjoy in solitude. Sensations, feelings, insights, fancies – all these are private and, except through symbols and at second hand, incommunicable. We can pool information about experiences, but never experiences themselves.” In this case, there has to be a body that undergoes the experience and a voice that can transmit it. And Waldman has quite a voice.

It’s true that Waldman, who was born in Israel, is known because of her husband (the Pulitzer-winning writer Michael Chabon) – or, more precisely, because she dared declare to the entire world and Oprah Winfrey that she loves him more than her children. I am not ashamed to admit I came because of Chabon, but I stayed because of Waldman. Yes, Waldman is a mother and a wife, but it is a position from which she succeeds in creating a new and interesting statement.

It seems that in recent years, after writing a number of light thrillers in which the heroine is a mother and detective, she is trying her hand at a more elevated form of literature, while simultaneously discovering her strength in autobiographical writing.

Michael Chabon and Ayelet Waldman. She is unable to say to her husband “I know you love me.” However, she can say “I know you love me, even though loving me is a terrible mistake."Credit: Ilya Melnikov

Waldman is at her best when she requires, and even demands, assertive action in the world (both from herself and others; in this context, it will be fascinating to read the book Waldman and Chabon have been editing to mark the 50th anniversary of the occupation).

In the case of “A Really Good Day,” Waldman is stepping onto a path that was already blazed. Rather surprisingly, it was women who dared describe their LSD experiences in the past, too.

In his 1979 book “LSD, My Problem Child,” Albert Hofmann mentions the best sellers written by two women whom psychiatrists treated with LSD: Jane Dunlap (“Exploring Inner Space,” 1961); and Constance A. Newland (“My Self and I,” 1963). Newland’s book’s promising subtitle is “The intimate and completely frank record of one woman’s courageous experiment with psychiatry’s newest drug LSD-25.” Men wrote more informative, drier reports; Newland wrote about how she discovered the orgasm with the help of LSD.

And Waldman is, to some extent, following in the footsteps of these women. She writes relatively lightly about herself and the subject, and is candid about her personal life. Waldman’s personal journey is also interesting because it is a little voyeuristic – like many trendy television shows (“Louie”), only in a book.

MAD HATTER: An LSD lover at a music festival in New York, 1967.Credit: Santi Visalli/Getty Images

Waldman is prepared to open a window onto the life of a well-known and well-liked literary couple, and to show readers how their love – as great and photogenic as it might be – is as fragile and petty as all of ours (quarrels over an uncomfortable sofa they share in the study are revisited time and again). These small, personal moments warm the heart and mind.

The book’s emotional climax is a confession about a couples-therapy session in which Waldman is totally unable to say to her husband, “I know you love me.” However, she can say, “I know you love me, even though loving me is a terrible mistake.” And “I know you love me, because your problem is that you are only attracted to awful women.” That line had to be immediately photographed and sent to my husband.

The is not a personal glitch but an illustration – the book is interesting not only because it bears witness to the advantages of LSD and narrow-mindedness concerning the use of various drugs, but also because it bears witness to the complexity in living life as a couple – even for two people who love each other and share a common language.

Beyond the advantages of microdoses of LSD, Waldman also reveals the impotence of assorted psychiatric diagnoses (does she have Bipolar II disorder or is it premenstrual dysphoric disorder?), and our era’s obsession with self-regulation by spiritual, therapeutic, medicinal and other means.

Some of the chapters are unfocused with respect to the subject matter, and I could not help but wonder if this book also perhaps belongs to the self-improvement category – our era’s obsession with being happy, functioning, productive, familial, smiling and serene (for heaven’s sake, let the crappy days just be).

Waldman wraps up her book with a unified image of a happy family, converging back to the norm and family unit from which she had departed on her trip.

But the book does not really end well. There is no real conclusion concerning the big problem she raised: her suffering. She does decide to get rid of the damned uncomfortable sofa and finds a room of her own. But the suffering – the big suffering – has no real solution.

Even though the self-experimentation with microdosing worked, Waldman has no way of obtaining LSD on a regular basis (it’s not that easy to find a dealer in Berkeley, apparently) and Waldman is reluctant to ride into the sunset as a lawbreaker.

So what do we have? It would have been nice if Waldman (who, based on her Instagram account, seems to have a kind of tattoo on the palm of her hand with the word “Wait”) had paused and pondered what she is really offering the reader, who has accompanied her thus far and is suffering quite a bit herself.

In the meantime, until the LSD arrives, at least I had some really good days with Waldman’s book.

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