A therapist grapples with his Oedipal complex.
Unlike the Gospel according to John, which centers on the most transformative figure in the famous apostle’s life, Keen’s evocatively titled debut novel tracks John, a therapist specializing in behavioral issues who tries to better comprehend the impact of the most troubling figure in his life: his mother. When, at 28, he finds himself unhappily divorced, brooding and uncharacteristically engaging in bar fights, John finally takes a friend’s advice and begins examining his behavior by keeping a journal—which he initially views as an “in-your-face, black-and-white confirmation of [his] shortcomings.” The novel chronicles a four-month period in early 2006 during which John faces the harsh reality that witnessing his mother’s sexual dalliances with a number of men as a child has hindered his ability to achieve true intimacy with others as an adult. It’s also spawned an undercurrent of rage against the mother he has never confronted nor forgiven, an alluring woman eloquently described as having a throat like “an elongated stem holding the beautiful fruit that was her head,” a “hard, ebony upper body” and “incredibly sensuous, elegant hands that had seen and done a lot.” Therapist John repeatedly wonders why the proverbial “physician, heal thyself” command isn’t working for him, lamenting, “If I know it, why can’t I use it?” And at another, “How do I let go of everything that is hanging up my life, when all I know how to do is hang on for dear life?” Keeping the reader engaged while the protagonist remains so static proves challenging for the author, who occasionally resorts to a litany of curative maxims to mark John’s gradual enlightenment and drive home essential Freudian themes. Still, the premise and execution is intriguing.
A heavy-handed but compelling look at the emotional complications in a mother-son relationship.
Fresh off a divorce from a marriage that barely lasted two years, John soon gets into a nasty bar brawl, leaving him much worse for the wear. Increasingly alarmed by his disastrous tendencies, his cousin, Maya, suggests that he begin keeping a journal, regularly documenting his thoughts and feelings. In so doing, she hopes that he’ll come to a greater awareness of precisely what motivates him to come to the various self-destructive decisions that he makes.
John complies with Maya’s request – albeit begrudgingly – and he initially scoffs at the notion that any attempts at self-analysis will yield fruitful results. As time goes on, though, he is enlightened to the full depths of his conscious and self-conscious behavior – chief among them the compulsions that stem from his strained (to say the least) relationship with his mother. Ultimately, his journaling takes on a life of its own, revealing long-suppressed pain and emotional scarring that he can – and will – no longer choose to avoid…whether or not it ultimately leads to the spiritual and psychological healing he so sorely needs, though, is all but guaranteed.
In Journal According To John, author Sheryl Keen has penned a powerful, insightful treatise on the complicated delicacy of the human condition. Though John’s particular dysfunctional behavior emanates from a specific source, his general life story is representative of anyone who has suffered emotional damage over the course of their lives. As such, Keen takes the reader on a vicarious journey through the standard cycle of pain, damage control, assessment, and ultimate reconstruction – with which we are all familiar on some level. Regardless of how the damage is done in our lives, our reactions to it are often identical, and Keen’s adept portrayal of John’s journey through self-analysis – however personal it may be – skillfully displays that.
Edifying and entertaining, Journal According To John takes the reader on an eye-opening sojourn through the depths of the common humanity that unites us all. A can’t-miss literary treat. Rating: 4/5 stars