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Surrounded by Others and Yet So Alone
J. W. Freiberg has been lauded as “the Oliver Sacks of law” by celebrated trauma psychiatrist Bessel van der Kolk, because, like Sacks, the famous neurologist and author, Freiberg uses a story format to involve the reader in real cases from his law practice that have meaning far beyond their particular scenarios. And like Sacks, Freiberg’s graceful pacing and flowing phraseology make his case studies a delight to read. In this follow-up to his acclaimed book, Four Seasons of Loneliness (winner of the 2017 Independent Publishers Gold Prize as the best book of the year in Psychology / Mental Health), Freiberg continues to explore one of modern society’s most serious public health crises: chronic loneliness. Each of the five compelling case stories illustrates the damaging effects of malfunctioning relationships, while Four Seasons of Loneliness explored the devastation caused by social isolation. Taken together, the books paint a picture of two entirely divergent pathways that can lead to chronic loneliness and its typically tragic consequences.
Attorney and former social psychology professor Freiberg (Growing Up Lonely: Disconnection and Misconnection in the Lives of Our Children) assembles a sparkling collection of exceedingly erudite essays on human nature as seen through the lens of some of his most memorable legal cases. For over three decades in Boston, Freiberg worked for child protective social service organizations, adoption agencies, and many psychiatrists, psychologists, and clinical social workers. The majority of his stories center on children and the social and psychological stresses that litigants experience and inflict on one another in legal proceedings.

One of the most heartstring-tugging pieces is “The Girl Who Inherited France,” the story of a bright six-year-old whose mother dies suddenly from a stroke. In a protracted custody battle, her stepfather fights to keep custody of the little girl he considers his daughter. Another story likely to elicit tears is “Three Souls Caught in a Spider’s Web,” the tale of a bakery owner and battered wife who helps her isolated stepson to find a forever home. The author’s passion for his subjects will readily be shared by the reader. The theme of solitude and loneliness connects the essays, but each one takes a different approach, and each child is a sympathetically depicted individual.

Though billed primarily as an analysis of loneliness, this is far from a dry textbook. Freiberg has a master storyteller’s skillful voice, easily drawing readers into his narratives and keeping them enthralled. He teaches through relevant examples rather than dry pronouncements and expertly gets to the emotional heart of each case, immediately garnering empathy for each person he profiles. The closing section has a more academic tone but is still very accessible and reader-friendly. Expertly written and perfectly paced, Freiberg’s work puts a human face on the law and will have considerable appeal for anyone interested in human nature both at its best and at its worst.

Takeaway: Anyone with an interest in loneliness, solitude, or the sorrows of children caught in litigation will be enthralled by these erudite and sympathetic essays.

Great for fans of Oliver Sacks’s The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, E.O. Wilson’s On Human Behavior.

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