Charles Barber - Author of Comfortably Numb
Songs from the Black Chair
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"Excellent stories that challenge our preconceptions of what illness, or indeed, medicine, might mean. Barber captures unbearable pathos without manipulating his subject or his reader."
The Lancet (United Kingdom)

"A beautifully written, and very moving memoir—a story of hope and talent that persists, no matter the tragedies that await any of us at one or another point in our lives."
—Robert Coles, James Agee Professor of Social Ethics at Harvard University, Pulitzer Prize–winner, and author of The Spiritual Lives of Children

“A complex and sophisticated memoir by a young man who survived a harrowing brush with mental illness and eventually became, by a roundabout route, a mental health professional. His account of his odyssey is compelling, disturbing, many-faceted, and highly imaginative. I’ve never read another book quite like it.”
—William Finnegan, author of Cold New World: Growing up in Harder Country and staff writer for The New Yorker

“Written from inside the belly of the beast, Charles Barber’s Songs soars like a lovely melody above the din of the world, and in juxtaposition to the silence of those who suffer from mental illness of any sort. Engrossing, perceptive, and elegantly written.”
—Carlos Eire, author of Waiting for Snow in Havana and winner of the National Book Award

"An amazing book ... Barber is a gifted writer, and the work he has produced is an important addition to the literature of both mental health and New York City."
The Village Voice

"A truly absorbing and beautifully written story. I couldn't put it down."
—Dave Davies, on NPR's FRESH AIR

"Imaginative and beautifully written, with vivid imagery and wit ... Songs from the Black Chair should enjoy a wide audience."
JAMA, Journal of the American Medical Association

"For those who work in mental health services, the best teachers are often those who are themselves mentally ill. Thus, personal accounts that bring us closer to the inner maelstrom of mental illness—books such as William Styron's Darkness Visible, Sylvia Nasar's A Beautiful Mind ... and now Charles Barber's equally eloquent and insightful Songs from the Black Chair—have long made important contributions to the field ... As the title suggests, the book is often less a typical memoir than a 'song'—a free-flowing, lyrical, and imaginative story ... Barber's ability to convey the experience of mental illness is striking."
The New England Journal of Medicine

"[A] perceptive gem"
Library Journal Recovery Memoir Roundup (starred review)

“Barber has written a passionate and honest book about those with mental illness. He combines the personal and the political quite subtly. It is also original, which is something to be prized.”
—Sue Bond, Metapsychology Online Review

"Barber ... Isn't afraid of words like 'crazy' or 'madness'; he'd rather render his 'clients' as human characters than as case studies. [Barber] relates [their stories] with detailed vitality and with respect for the tellers. As his obsessive-compulsiveness becomes a pathology, Barber evokes in this compelling and artfully crafted book a sort of cinematic tension; that he survived to tell the tale ... Doesn't lessen the punch. As in first-person mysteries, Barber is alive and, though not unscathed, balanced at book's end."
Publishers Weekly

"Barber draws a compelling and compassionate portrait of the struggle for peace and clarity of mind."

"A valuable, well-written memoir that skillfully interweaves the strands of Barber’s young adult life with his affinity for working with the mentally ill. The author provides many insights."
Literature, Arts, and Medicine Database

"Tobias Wolff, author of the autobiographical This Boy’s Life, selects the memoirs in the University of Nebraska Press's American Lives series, and what a beautiful choice he's made in this modest, bittersweet, story of three boys lives that didn't turn out as expected."
Wilson Quarterly

"I read this book in two sittings. I couldn't put it down ... It is human, vivid, tender, moving, and breathtakingly insightful. Barber's book is a moving and perceptive testatment to this truth ... that sometimes great insight or wisdom is possible only when things become dark or difficult."
—Alison Leibling, Director of the Prison Research Center at the University of Cambridge, in the Prison Service Journal (UK)


  • 2006 Connecticut Book Awards, sponsored by the Connecticut Center for the Book, biography or memoir category finalist
  • 2005 Pushcart Prize for title essay "Songs from the Black Chair"

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