That's How the Light Gets In: Memoir of a Psychiatrist

That's How the Light Gets In: Memoir of a Psychiatrist

by Susan Rako

Hardcover(SUSAN RAKO)

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That's How the Light Gets In: Memoir of a Psychiatrist by Susan Rako

Susan Rako seemed to have it all. She was a piano prodigy at eight, a highly intelligent teenager focused on academics and determined to study medicine, and then a wife, mother, and M.D., all before thirty. But she knew at her core that her spirit was clouded by despair. Dr. Rako was drawn to the study and practice of psychiatry as a seeker of truth about herself and others, and as much to free herself as to be of help to her patients.
Dr. Rako was in her forties before years of therapy—both given and received—freed her to explore her innate and broad-based creativity. A well-respected Boston psychiatrist, Susan Rako has also become a pioneering expert on women’s reproductive health and a writer whose incisive intelligence enables her to pierce through clutter to deeper meaning. In That’s How the Light Gets In, she gives us important life lessons through example. What she has learned, through decades of experience as a trusted psychiatrist who has helped hundreds of people—and through her own self-exploration and therapy—is distilled in a lyrically wrought memoir that truly does illuminate that which makes us human and makes life an adventure of magic and mystery.
That’s How the Light Gets In is an intelligent and intensely personal story from a highly respected doctor, author, and advocate for women’s health issues. Dr. Rako’s insightful stories of self, family, friends, patients, and colleagues bear witness to the power of discovering and standing to one’s truth. Susan Rako will inspire you to look within yourself and acknowledge your deepest ambitions, develop your own imagination, and learn to breakthrough the boundaries and limitations that each of us places on ourselves. That’s How the Light Gets In will inspire you to live the life you’ve always wanted to live—the life of your dreams.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781400046058
Publisher: Crown Publishing Group
Publication date: 11/15/2005
Edition description: SUSAN RAKO
Pages: 224
Product dimensions: 5.82(w) x 8.51(h) x 0.87(d)

About the Author

Susan Rako, M.D., is the acclaimed author of two previous books, The Hormone of Desire and No More Periods? Beginning with education at Wellesley College and Albert Einstein College of Medicine, followed by specialty training in psychiatry at Harvard’s Massachusetts Mental Health Center, Dr. Rako established, more than thirty years ago, an active psychiatric practice in Boston that she continues to serve and to enjoy. In 2003 she founded the educational nonprofit, Women’s Health on Alert, Inc. (WHOA). On a parallel track with her medical work, in 1988 Dr. Rako earned an M.S. in film production from Boston University College of Communication. In May 2005, as executive producer, she brought the Boston premier of the play Hysterics to the Lyric Stage. Dr. Rako’s work has been featured in countless publications, including the New York Times and USA Today, and on Today, Dateline NBC, and BBC World Today. She may be contacted through her website,

Read an Excerpt

That's How the Light Gets In

By Susan Rako, M.D.

Random House

Susan Rako, M.D.
All right reserved.

ISBN: 140004605X

Chapter One

One: Becoming

Boundaries in the large extended family of my childhood were always something of a problem. Respect for separateness was not a birthright. Responsibility for self was not a hallmark. One of my cousins once said that she and her mother were "stuck together like a Popsicle." Epoxy resin is more like it. Popsicles at least melt.

Another sort of boundary had been stretched when my great-uncle married his niece. Think of it . . . my mother's oldest sister, Rose, married her mother's brother. My understanding is that they met when Rosie was ten or eleven or so and he was several years older and newly emigrated to America from Russia, where all the family of that generation had been born. Eventually they fell in love, and they married.

My mother told me, with no comment and apparently no thought on the matter (though what she really thought about this and many another matter remained a mystery to me), "In the Jewish religion, an uncle can marry a niece, but an aunt can't marry a nephew." At the time, I thought that there was something odd, and maybe unfair, about this distinction.

I was a little girl who tended to think a lot, trying to figure out what was going on in my mother's head, in my family, and in the world around me. The Second World War figured large. Some decades later I put it together that the day I was born, Labor Day 1939, was just one day after Winston Churchill declared war on Germany. During my early childhood in Worcester, Massachusetts, the kitchen radio was always on with the war news about "the Allies" and a lot of other words I didn't understand, and with patriotic jingles encouraging us to buy war bonds.

Save up your pennies, and soon you'll have a nickel.

Save up your nickels and soon you'll have a dime.

We love our country, the stars make a banner

("The stars make a banner . . ." that's how I sang it. I think now that those words probably were: our star-spangled banner.)

Soldiers and sailors in uniform were everywhere. Union Station was flooded with servicemen carrying lumpy duffel bags on their shoulders. In our neighborhood, the wail of air-raid sirens was a signal for the grown-ups to pull down the black window shades and turn off the lights. During one air-raid drill, my mother told me that she couldn't smoke her cigarette on the porch, because "the Germans might see the burning butt and know where to bomb us." Another time, in a bizarrely desperate effort to discourage me from eating what she considered junk food, she warned me off the State Line potato chips my Dad sold in his grocery store by telling me that "the Germans ground up glass in them." I wondered why my dad would sell them to anyone, and worried in particular about my friend Kathryn Rita Reilley, who ate those potato chips too. The war was a confusing, distant, and at the same time omnipresent element in my early life.

In clear contrast, that thing about Auntie Rosie being married to her uncle Bob seemed pretty natural. Their three kids, Dorothy (who I knew as Duchess), Noah (Sonny or Son), and Malcolm (Mally), were my favorite older cousins. When I was a little older, I figured out that Uncle Bob was both my uncle and my great-uncle, and of course I figured out that in addition to being their father, Uncle Bob was their great-uncle as well.

"Son" was short for "sunshine," the light his birth brought into the family soon after the sudden death of his maternal grandfather Noah, for whom he was named. I never even wondered how Duchess got her name. I was two or three when we moved in with the family for a while, and Duchess was twenty--tall, beautiful in an exotic sort of way, and with an alluring mole on her cheek, like Elizabeth Taylor. I remember standing at the bathroom door, watching her dress her hair--puffing a pompadour secured by curved hair combs above her forehead, and, at the sides and the back, pinning the ends over a U-shaped loop of sausagelike padding called a "rat," this part of the hairdo secured by a fancy, decorated string hairnet. Rodent metaphors extended to the rat-tailed comb, whose skinny end she used to tuck the hair around the "rat." My straight, thick brown hair was in a Dutch clip, sort of like what Hans Brinker might have worn, and I was mesmerized by Duchess's coiffure--rat and all.

At that time, my cousin Son was sixteen, and Mally a couple of years younger. Once in a while the two of them would get into some horseplay, with which Auntie Rosie didn't have much patience. She'd chase them around the house, flailing ineffectually with Uncle Bob's belt and yelling for them to quit it. I loved the excitement. Having a little girl in the house for a couple of months must have been more of a novelty than a nuisance for them, as they were very kind to me. Imagine my sixteen-year-old boy cousin creating magical adventures for me in a large clump of lilac bushes in the backyard, where he pushed aside the branches with their shiny green heart-shaped leaves and cautioned me to step carefully over the gnarled roots, whispering for me to watch for the gremlins who lived there. Although they never actually made an appearance, I knew exactly what they looked like.

Years later I realized that my parents weren't much older than Duchess or Son. Auntie Rosie was the second oldest of eight children, my mother the youngest and only nine when Duchess was born. Those nine years did seem to constitute a generation, though. I always felt that Duchess was much like an older sister to me.

My mother had met my dad in Springfield, Massachusetts, in 1937 or so, when she was working as a traveling demonstrator for Sears and Roebuck (a notably independent job for a woman in those days) and he was managing something I heard as "growerzoutlet," which must have been a produce market. I knew my dad's workplace had something to do with food, but I never knew exactly what it was or imagined how its name might be spelled.

Virtually a hush-hush family secret: not until they went to take out a marriage license did my mother learn that her prospective husband was nearly two years younger than she--born in 1915 to her 1913. This small difference in age, compounded by the dissembling, became a condensing point for the atmosphere of disappointment and distrust that had, perhaps since her father dropped dead of a heart attack when she was twelve, clouded my mother's experience of life.

My parents began married life in Springfield, where I was born and where we lived until I was about two. Then my father was offered a job in Connecticut. This was trouble, since the tacit limit of acceptable distance from Worcester and my mother's family had been Springfield. The family pull--that we move not farther away but back to Worcester--prevailed.

Memory, for me, begins at this point, in Worcester at my grandmother's house, when we moved in with her and my aunt, uncle, and cousins--all nine of us sharing the top-floor apartment in the three-decker on Houghton Street. My parents slept on the couch in the living room, I think that my crib was in the dining room, and I know that a cardboard carton full of my toys and books was in the boys' room. The sides of that box came up to my armpits, and I remember the sharpness of the box edge on my upper chest when I leaned over into it to reach my Betsy Wetsy.

The dominant presence in the household, such that Auntie Rosie, Uncle Bob, and their kids were said to be living with her rather than the other way around, was my grandmother, Bobba. Never mind that Uncle Bob paid the rent; it was always "Bobba's house." Enclaves of extended family lived or worked nearby. A few blocks away in different directions were Bobba's two sisters, Boonie and Tanteh, with their families, and one of her brothers, Uncle Ike, owned the corner grocery store where my mother bought cigarettes and where I could get an ice cream.

Auntie Rosie didn't buy much food at Uncle Ike's, though. She and my mother shopped at the Jewish kosher markets on Water Street. I loved to go with them. All that hustle and bustle, sound, color, and smells. "The chickenik," Josephs' chicken store, had live chickens in doweled crates stacked up against the wall. The men behind the counter wore hats--skullcaps or fedoras, sometimes with the front brim pushed up, the better to see. Josephs' stank of burned chicken feathers. I used to pass the time waiting for our turn making designs with my shoe in the sawdust scattered on the floor to collect dirt and spills.

Pulda's kosher fish market sold only fish with scales, of course--no shrimp, lobster, clams, or catfish--and was a different kind of stinky. Sometimes we would skip Cohen's kosher meat market, because they delivered. I remember my mother on the telephone: "Mitzi, I want a good brisket. Not a double, a single." On Water Street, we always shopped at Whitman's creamery, where the lox was sliced only by hand, and where my aunt bought farmer cheese, "a nice whitefish," grocer- ies, and a block of halvah. Smoked fish, but no other stinky smells here. And then: Weintraub's Delicatessen. My mouth waters remembering the aromas and flavors there: hot pastrami, corned beef, pickled tongue, half-sour pickles, and sour green tomatoes. Palisades of salamis hung above the men behind the counter spooning mustard into cones of brown waxed paper to accompany whatever we bought to go. Our last stop might be Lieberman's Bakery--fragrant with pumpernickel and cornmeal-dusted rye breads, and with cases of babke, kichel, nut-studded mandel bread, half-moon cookies, cakes and pastries, and trays of chocolate eclairs and charlotte russes.

Indeed much of life centered around food, its purchase, its preparation, and its consumption. For Shabbas (the Sabbath), Bobba always baked one or another cake and, always, challah. Every Friday, I would find the huge golden ceramic mixing bowl covered with a dish towel over the bread dough rising, then Bobba in her housedress and bibbed print apron standing at the kitchen table, dashing flour at the wooden bread board. I loved to watch as she cut off a hunk of challah dough, pressed it down with the heel of her hand, and folded it quickly over to press again and again. She usually gave me my own little mound of dough to knead. By the time I was through with it, my challie didn't look much like hers, but she painted it carefully with egg yolk and baked it anyway. My dolls didn't mind that it had the texture of a rock and looked like one, for that matter.

To crown her beautiful challahs, Bobba usually made braids of dough--the shape of the challah and the placement of the braid determined by proximity to holidays. I never learned the code. Sometimes the challah was round, with a braid encircled like a wreath, but most times the challah was oval, and the braid lay centered on top in a straight line lengthwise. When my grandmother took the bread out of the oven to cool, she would denude one of the challahs of its braid and give it to me hot, to eat, with butter. I have never had its equal.

For Shabbas, Auntie Rosie usually made gefilte fish, grinding the fish in a hand grinder that screwed onto the top of the kitchen table: a piece of raw fish into the mouth of the grinder, a piece of onion to push the fish down, a hand clamped over the top of the grinder to hold it all in place, fish and onion juice dripping. Messy work that made her eyes tear up, and there was no helping the ground fish lost to coating the fish grinder.

I was born with a taste for Jewish-Russian food and al- ways enjoyed the poached fish balls decorated with carrot and served with beet-juice-colored horseradish. I liked to eat them hot in their poaching broth. I make gefilte fish today pretty much as my aunt and my mother did--but with the convenience of raw fish ground to order by the fish market and onions ground in a blender jar. I know it's not rational, but I have held the line against owning a food processor--one less technological advance removed from the hand grinder of my childhood.

Cooking with Bobba wasn't the only activity we shared. Sometimes she and I (on her lap) sat by the window counting cars. Most of them were black. When traffic was light, she taught me Russian songs: Cheesik, cheesik, justin bil, Oofcantoro vodkoo pil. (Bird, bird, where are you? I'm with the cantor, drinking vodka!)

Sometimes she let me take the hairpins out of the bun at the back of her head and comb her long, silky white hair with a big wide-toothed comb. I tried each time to do the bun up again, but never could get it to stay. Finally Bobba would twist her hair and pin it back up deftly with those hands I will never forget.

Bobba's hands were very soft, as was, physically, everything about her. Her cheeks were soft, her breasts were soft, and her belly, into which I leaned when I was finished on the toilet and she came in to wipe me, was soft. I remember my head in her apron, looking down at Bobba's shoes--black, with laces and eyelet cutouts--while she wadded up the toilet paper and wiped me clean. It felt different from when my mother did it. Softer.

We lived at Bobba's house for several months, until my father found a job managing the dairy department of Brockelman's, a food emporium on Main Street. Last time I looked, the building was still there, vacant and proud, with the frieze of produce and upside-down chickens on the columns that mark its corners. Once my dad was set with work, my mother, my father, and I moved to an apartment on the other side of town, and then in the sixteen years before I went to college, we moved six times. Bobba and retinue moved only once, and Bobba's house was a steady, warm, and flavorful center to it all.

My mother's seven older sibs included five brothers. Fatherless from age twelve, she was especially attached to them--even (and particularly) to the one, Barney, who taught me the meaning of "black sheep." I was told he was charming--he had no difficulty in attracting wives--but I did not find him so.

Particularly unwelcome were the times at Bobba's house when the family might be gathered for shabbas dinner or . . .


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That's How the Light Gets In: Memoir of a Psychiatrist 4.8 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 4 reviews.
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Guest More than 1 year ago
As I was engrossed in reading That's How the Light Gets In, I tried to think of the one world that would describe it, and I think that word is elegant. One expects all kinds of 'dishy' stuff in memoirs, but in this instance the author artfully circumvented this hazard without skimping on any of her feelings or struggles. I say, Bravo ! I identified in so many places, which made reading this book that much more pleasurable and validating for me. It is a fine piece of literary work.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This wonderful book chronicles one woman's reflections on her life journey to self-insight from the negative and positive fragments of her life, woven together into a cohesive satisfying narrative. Her rich descriptive details of her life's key moment is cleverly interlaced with intepretive commentary. This book also offers a sensitive, informed look into the world of a healer and leaves the reader with the strong message that healing begins with one's self. A must-read for women at all stages of their developmental trajectory!
Guest More than 1 year ago
I couldn't put this book down as I re-connected with parts of life I had all but forgotten. Bringing feelings of joy to sorrow, and connected to life. I love how she wove the evolutiion of psychoanalysis into her self and work with people. Barbara Spear, M.F.T., Westlake Village, Ca.