Looking into the Abyss

Siddhartha Mukherjee on mining a family legacy of mental illness to write his second book, The Gene.

Written by Catherine Rhea Roy | Published: July 7, 2016 12:15 am
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On Tuesday, the Stein Auditorium at the India Habitat Centre, Delhi, was filled to capacity at the launch of Siddhartha Mukherjee’s second book, The Gene: An Intimate History. “This book actually began even before The Emperor Of All Maladies (which won him the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction). So I call it a prequel to the sequel, much like Star Wars. These could be anyone’s stories, although they are very personal to me. Hence the name: an intimate history,” said Mukherjee.

A vein of personal experience runs through the book, which examines the strong genetic, multi-generational aspect of illness. Mukherjee draws on the stories of his uncle, who was schizophrenic, and cousin who suffered from depression, to discuss the family’s inheritance of mental illness. “Like most Bengali families, mine had elevated denial to a museum grade art form, much of it would not be talked about. But I shared a close relationship with my uncle,” he said. Despite the denial, Mukherjee recounted being taken by his father to a doctor because he didn’t talk too much. When the doctor asked the young boy about his reticence, Mukherjee simply replied, “Because I don’t have much to talk about.” The doctor allayed his father’s fears that “this” was happening to his son.

The gene, and what we know about it, is indispensable to modern life and medicine. “A gene is a unit of biological information, although that definition is always changing; a genome is a collection of all your genes …You need to know this vocabulary if you need to enter the 21st century, understand the choices you have to make and your understanding of suffering,” he said.

While it is now reasonably simple to sequence your genome, the science is a complex one. He used the example of Angelina Jolie who had a double mastectomy to prevent breast cancer. “In her inherited genome, she found the BRCA1 cancer gene, a single mutant gene which increases the risk of breast cancer in women.

But mental illnesses, schizophrenia or bi-polar disorder, for instance, are not the result of a mutation in one gene, but a combination of many.” Writing The Gene took its author to unexpected places. “It is divided in two parts. The first is where I start out merrily with Mendel and Darwin. But I soon realised that I had written myself to the edge of an abyss, and I knew I had to go in. That is the second half of the book, it is the abyss,” he said.

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