AUGUST: The Book That Broke Then Healed Me

By: Michelle Nedboy

Over the summer, I asked my mom for a book recommendation from one of her thousands of texts. She went into her home office (also known as the guest bedroom) and looked through a few of her book cabinets, which hadn’t been opened in a long while. It took some fussing, but she managed to find me a block of text from 1983, called “August.” A whopping 557 pages. How was I going to finish this before school?

I didn’t. I instead read a measly 58 pages during the month of August (irony!) and started over in September. That was the best idea I’ve had in a while. This book made me laugh, cry and think. It broke me. I flew through its pages and 557 felt like the back of a shampoo bottle, save the predictability. I needed to know what would happen to Dawn Henley, and her psychoanalyst, Lulu Shinefield.

The way my mom described it to me, “August” by Judith Rossner, details the strong, vulnerable patient-psychoanalyst relationship that exists behind closed doors, as well as what happens when the much-dreaded month approaches. Doctors go on vacation, their patients left behind to cope, the all-too-sudden disturbance in their weekly visits threatening to undo all their progress. In this particular story, we learn about the tragic life of Dawn Henley, her visits with Dr. Shinefield fascinating and raw, disturbing and real. Without giving anything away, Dawn is strong. She is stronger than she’ll ever know, yet she is hurting. You will fall in love with her.

Dr. Shinefield is Dawn’s god; smart, attentive, honest and nurturing. She cares for Dawn as if she were one of her own, whilst remaining professional and firm. But Lulu is hurting too. Bad. She has the upper hand when it comes to controlling her emotions and being mature; she’s the actual, has-lived-through-it adult. Yet it isn’t healthy. She’s learned to repress her feelings, to ignore them. Which is better, the terrified undergrad or the walled off expert who’s too scared to examine her own self, settling on others? We’re treated with a classic play-by-play of each of their lives, each chapter alternating between the two women, who have more in common than they think. The story’s structure allows for you, the reader, to answer that question for yourself—although it isn’t easy. None of it’s “easy.” This book isn’t for the easily distressed; such a feeling is expected, but you shouldn’t feel a dreaded discomfort. It’s hard, but well worth it.

I’m not sure if my mom did this on purpose or not—she swears she didn’t, having read the book a long time ago—but upon completing “August”, it all came crashing down on me. It made me reflect upon my life, and upon the lives I could’ve had, upon my own fears and insecurities. Upon my ways of coping. It felt sudden, as I read the last sentence and began assessing my own life, as if I were Dawn and Lulu, combined and in the same body, and this was my job—to ask and answer my own questions. After reading “August,” I felt comfortable examining things about myself that I’ve never known to have existed. It was startling, but also liberating.  “August” helped me heal alongside its characters. I wish I had the privilege of reading it for the first time again—I envy you. Happy reading!

A version of this originally appeared in
The Teller December 2019 Issue #9

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