Pharmakon, or the Story of a Happy Family

Pharmakon, or the Story of a Happy Family

4.8 5
by Dirk Wittenborn

View All Available Formats & Editions

Unabridged CDs • 12 CDs, 15 hours

A novel of scientific experimentation gone wrong and the consequences that haunt a family for a generation.


Unabridged CDs • 12 CDs, 15 hours

A novel of scientific experimentation gone wrong and the consequences that haunt a family for a generation.

Editorial Reviews

Susanna Moore
A brilliant portrait of a young family of the 1950s, possessed of the particular qualities of post-war America — optimism, prosperity and security — and the inevitable loss of innocence as both country and family encounter the challenges of maturity. Dirk Wittenborn's provocative book is sharply observed; a subtle and wise fable of our time. (Susanna Moore, author of In The Cut)
Richard Price
In Pharmakon Dirk Wittenborn has given us a fascinating portrait of a family living on the edge in the barely post-medieval age of 1950's psychopharmacology. Both victims and perpetrators, pioneers and innocents, the saga of the Freidrichs will stay with you long after the book has been read. (Richard Price, author of Lush Life)
Bret Easton Ellis
Pharmakon is an old-fashioned novel about a modern subject—set in the past but completely relevant to where we are today. It might remind you of mid-period John Irving, but gentler. And just when you've settled into a groove the book takes surprising—sometimes shocking—turns. Beneath all the pain there's hope coursing through these pages, and in the end don't be surprised if you find yourself moved to tears.
Jay McInerney
In Pharmakon, Dirk Wittenborn has given us a haunting illustration of the Tolstoyan maxim that every unhappy family is unique in its unhappiness, though in fact no one who has ever been part of a family can fail to feel pangs of recognition as they follow the saga of the Friedrich family across three tumultuous generations. Pharmakon is an ambitious and memorable novel. (Jay McInerney, author of Bright Lights, Big City and Brightness Falls)
Marisha Pessl
Eerie, authentic, and always with heart, Pharmakon is a slow-burning triumph. (Marisha Pessl, author of Special Topics in Calamity Physics)
Janet Maslin
What's best about Pharmakon, beyond the curiosity value of its unusual premise and atmosphere, is Mr. Wittenborn's colorful, affectionate evocation of a complex family story. While it goes without saying that the doctor can be envisioned as monstrous, Pharmakon prefers to see the humanity in his clumsy efforts at manipulation…Ultimately Pharmakon is a smart, eccentric coming-of-age story about an entire culture's maturation process, not just one about the workings of a single family. And Mr. Wittenborn is able to channel a lifetime's worth of psychiatric symptoms into one improbably universal story.
—The New York Times
Darin Strauss
Pharmakon is brightened by an atmosphere of personal authority; it really feels true. In the best novels, the personal and the general add up to a significance that goes beyond one's private experience. But if too much of Pharmakon goes by as life itself goes by—before the cosmetic and wardrobe changes of art have given it a proper makeover—it still has a powerful sense of realism. I think that's the answer to the mystery of this book. It shouldn't work, but it does, somehow, despite everything; a vibe of personal experience saves this fast-moving, confused, likable and flawed novel.
—The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly

Author and screenwriter Wittenborn's latest novel, a multicharacter, multidecade exploration of pharmacology and murder, is large enough to require two readers for its audio version. Deakins and Hoppe trade off duties-one grainy and slightly ironic, the other orotund and inclined to throwing voices. Both are more than serviceable, underscoring the horror and the comedy of this tale of progress denied with cool detachment and a faintly mocking air. The dual narration splits between the perspectives of Zach Friedrich, son of a famed Yale psychologist, and that of a young man, a former student of Dr. Friedrich's, who is at the center of the book's tragedy. Having two narrators excellently underscores the stark contrast between the two worlds described, which only grow further and further apart as the book progresses. A Viking hardcover (Reviews, Mar. 24).(Aug.)

Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Library Journal

The jacket copy for Wittenborn's latest novel proclaims the contents within to be "an epic novel about family secrets and the consequences of ambition." Unfortunately, what lies between the covers is epic only in its absolute failure as a novel of both substance and entertainment. The basic plot conceit is interesting: a professor of psychology at Yale has to cope with a murderous research subject. The writing, however, is clumsy and derivative, riddled with cliches and plot holes so large one doesn't care whether the family's secrets are revealed at all. And when they are, it is a huge disappointment. The author is an Emmy Award-nominated producer, and perhaps he would have better luck turning his premise into a screenplay. Recommended for larger public and academic libraries only. [See Prepub Alert, LJ4/15/08.]
—Christopher Bussmann

Kirkus Reviews
A novel of psychopharmacological experimentation, revenge and family tragedy. Wittenborn (Fierce People, 2002) re-creates Yale in the early 1950s as psychologist William Friedrich enters into a lab partnership with Dr. Bunny Winton, an exotic colleague who during the war had been developing some expertise with gai kau dong (aka GKD), a hallucinogen used by cannibal tribes in New Guinea. The scientists' suspicion is that this chemical substance might be able to be refined as an antidepressant, so Winton and Friedrich enter into a professional relationship in which rather surreptitiously they try out GKD on an experimental and a control group. While this is supposedly a double-blind experiment, Friedrich makes sure that the substance is given to Casper Gedsic, a brilliant, socially inept and perhaps sociopathic freshman at Yale. Shortly after Casper's personality changes, seemingly for the better (he loses his stammer, his shyness and his virginity), he brutally murders Dr. Winton and Dr. Friedrich's young son, Jack. Although he's caught and admitted to a hospital for the criminally insane, Friedrich abruptly changes the course of his life by moving his family to New Jersey (he gets a tenured professorship at Rutgers). While he teaches and works as a consultant to pharmaceutical firms there, he wills himself to forget the abortive experiment at Yale, and he and his wife even have another child, Zach, to "replace" the murdered Jack. Casper escapes from the hospital, however, and makes his presence known to the Friedrichs, who can never quite extricate themselves from the psychopathological shadow he casts, one that Friedrich may unwittingly have helped create. The novel then follows theshifting fortunes of the Friedrich family, especially the self-destructive Zach, who undermines his promise and creativity by becoming a drug addict. While the novel as a whole is a bit unfocused, the first part is a compulsive read and even after the narrative shifts to a dysfunctional family dynamic, Wittenborn holds the reader by examining Friedrich as a complex and sometimes monstrous paterfamilias.

Product Details

Penguin Group (USA)
Publication date:
Edition description:
Product dimensions:
5.25(w) x 5.75(h) x 1.50(d)
Age Range:
18 Years

Meet the Author

Dirk Wittenborn is a novelist and screenwriter whose books have been published in more than a dozen countries. He is the Emmy-nominated producer of the HBO documentary Born Rich and the coauthor and coproducer of The Lucky Ones, a feature film about American soldiers returning from Iraq.

Customer Reviews

Average Review:

Write a Review

and post it to your social network


Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See all customer reviews >

Pharmakon ...or the Story of a Happy Family 4.7 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 6 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Dr. William T. Friedrich suffers from 'Sock Moments,' catatonic moments of stillness which he cannot explain but which obviously arise from a series of seemingly innocent, unforeseen events. A former Yale University professor, Dr. Friedrich made a decision motivated by the desire to make a meaningful difference in the lot of psychologically ill patients but also fostered by the 'publish or perish' mentality of the scholarly competitive world of Yale academia. The decision was to explore, with one of the few female Yale professors - Dr. Bunny Winton - open to academic collaboration, the pharmaceutical benefits of 'gai kau dong.' This plant is made with kwina, grown only in New Guinea, and Dr. Friedrich has had the foresight to purchase enough to fill a small factory. After testing this concoction on rats and even accidentally experiencing its effects himself, Dr. Friedrich decides to try the drug on an obviously mentally ill patient, Casper, who is saved from suicide by Dr. Friedrich's wife. Transformed to an almost megalomaniac state, Casper is now enraged because he no longer has the substance that freed him from his darkest, crazed moments. But what no one realized is that Casper is now a highly intelligent madman bent on revenge. Dr. Friedrich knows how ill Casper is, calling him a 'highly functioning obsessive compulsive with marginal schizophrenic tendencies ' but realizing most human beings, including himself, could similarly be diagnosed, he decides not to check Casper into a psychiatric hospital. That decision proves to be the worst Dr. Friedrich ever made! The rest of the novel deals with the effects of Casper's devastating revenge, two acts that twist the sanity of the entire Friedrich family. It's a poignant, sane yet insane series of circumstances that will move any reader with a beating heart, the search for reason and well-being in a world gone awry, a thriller to readers but the nightmare to those living the experience! Pharmakon: A Novel is a fascinating look into the world of pharmacology, the world whose pills and panacea have more far-reaching effects than its designers and testers foresee. It's a world where those possible side-effects and contraindications accompanying any medication for the mentally challenged become a chilling but all to real reality! Reviewed by Viviane Crystal on August 2, 2008
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
The story is absolutely stunning in bringing to life the dynamics of individuals and families. The author tells the story from different perspectives and shows how a series of events can either break or strengthen a family.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Douglas Keightley More than 1 year ago
See title
Guest More than 1 year ago
In 1952, Yale University psychopharmacologist Dr. Will Friedrich and psychiatrist Dr. Bunny Winton conduct experiments on volunteer students using a mood enhancer drug that comes from a new Guinea leaf used locally by witch doctors in rituals. Will gives a dose to troubled undergrad Casper Gedsic. The freshman goes on a murdering rampage.------------ Years after the incident Will still carries deep regret and mountains of guilt. He also does not hide his disappointment in his four ¿unprofessional¿ offspring as they fail to meet his standards of acceptable vocations. The youngest Zach has become an addict more than a writer Fiona becomes a painter, Lucy is an aid worker and the great hope Willy proves the most inadequate when he leaves acceptable pre-law to study art. -------------------- Zach narrates the historical tale of a dysfunctional family whose patriarch has ¿sock moments¿ in which he seems so deep in thought he appears comatose. The story line is at its best when the focus is on the experiment and its aftermath especially the impact on the participants. When the plot switches to the Friedrich children, their woes seem mundane compared to the guilt suffered by their father, who has not been able to find a defense mechanism to psychologically adapt to what he wrought. Still fans of family dramas will appreciate this look at the degrees of affect of one tragic incident.----------- Harriet Klausner