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PS Picks: Rachel Aviv's Latest Masterful Mental-Health Narrative in 'The New Yorker'

PS Picks is a selection of the best things that the magazine's staff and contributors are reading, watching, or otherwise paying attention to in the worlds of art, politics, and culture.
The New Yorker displayed in an Upper East Side newsstand in New York on October 9th, 2012.

The New Yorker displayed in an Upper East Side newsstand in New York on October 9th, 2012.

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A Question of Identity: The New Yorker's Rachel Aviv is a master of mental-health narratives, especially the ones that break the diagnostic molds of modern psychiatry. Her latest is a haunting portrait of Hannah Upp, a young American teacher who keeps disappearing.

After Upp vanished the first time for three weeks in 2008, she was diagnosed with a dissociative fugue—a strange disorder in which otherwise healthy individuals lose their sense of identity. Often they adopt a new one and travel great distances, compelled to wander by a desire that is overwritten when their memories return— weeks, months, or years later.

Upp had no memories of her fugue states, which, unlike most fugue cases, appear to have been marked by a "complete absence of identity," her mother told Aviv in "How a Young Woman Lost Her Identity." It's scary enough to imagine that our bodies can wander about the world, for days, weeks, years, without anyone we'd recognize behind the wheel. But Upp's story is so chilling not only for Aviv's rare talent to make us empathize with her subjects, but because it makes us question our solipsist reality. Most people like to believe that, beneath our memories and experiences and behavior, is something unique and enduring that holds it all together—a selfhood that makes us, us. What if you're not who you think you are? What if the inner mind is really an abyss?