April 2022

Three questions with...
2021 Fellow Daniel Bergner

Your Fellows project, the forthcoming book The Mind and the Moon, is a work of both autobiography and science writing. What is the significance of the book’s title?

In the early 1960s, JFK promised that science would take us to the moon, and, just weeks before his death, he declared that science would make “the remote reaches of the mind accessible” and cure psychiatric disorders with breakthrough medications. We were on the moon within the decade. But today, psychiatric cures continue to elude us—as does the mind itself. Leading neuroscientists have told me that we’ve made no true progress in medicating mental illness in half a century. Why? And what alternative approaches to understanding and treatment might we take? My book is an exploration of these questions through three personal stories, one of them the story of my little brother, who was put on a locked ward when we were in our early 20s.

The book is centered around your own brother’s experiences with mental health problems and its various treatments. He was diagnosed with manic depression near the forefront of what you call psychiatry’s “third revolution.” Can you explain this era and its significance in the history of mental health?

By the early 80s, the idea that the brain and the mind are synonymous took full hold. Psychiatric troubles were purely a matter of neurology; if we could just adjust and fix the physical stuff of the brain we would fix our depressions, our anxieties, our manias, our breaks from shared reality into the hallucinations of psychosis. This was the so-called “third revolution.” It was defined by a kind of triumphal rationalism. This is the source of the common wisdom that mental illness is like diabetes; you take psychiatric drugs like you take insulin—straightforward as that. But it’s not even remotely as straightforward as that. The brain and the mind, neurology and consciousness, wiring and emotion, are vastly, perhaps infinitely divergent things. Science may well never take us from one to the other. And this is where, though I’m a fairly rational person, the book takes a slow spiritual turn. 

One facet of your book will look at how other cultures differ in method and outcome when comprehending, diagnosing, and controlling disorders. What is it about mental illness that causes such a disconnect in diagnosis and treatment methods among cultures?

Maybe the quickest way to answer this infinitely complex question is to think about Abraham. He hears God telling him to sacrifice his son. If I told a psychiatrist that God was commanding me to bind my son on an altar of stone and slaughter him, I'd be rushed to a locked ward. But the authors of Genesis thought completely differently. And even without the distances of millennia, divergent cultures can have dramatically different perspectives on the mind and mental health. One of my main characters, Chacku, learns to live with his voices and value his unshared realities through the lens of Buddhist and Hindu perspective. That last sentence might sound impossibly romantic, given that we're talking about psychosis. But stories like Chacku's have a lot to teach all of us about existing in our subjective, private realities, and about what it means to be human. If that doesn't come through in the book, then I've failed as a writer.

Two Cents

Fellows on how they cope with reader's block.

1: As a professional historian, I draw upon a wide range of primary and secondary sources to develop my book projects. This allows me to switch between reading/engaging academic monographs, historical newspapers, diaries, letters, and so on. This variety helps to keep me engaged, and whenever I feel like I have reader’s block, I switch to a different source to keep things moving along.
— Keisha N. Blain, Class of 2022

2: When I get reader's block regarding books, my solution is to read shorter form writing—whether op-eds or magazine essays. Usually the shorter writing increases my desire for books. — Theodore R. Johnson, Class of 2017

3: I listen to audio books, especially non-traditional books, like the great courses. Or I re-read or re-listen to a favorite author from a beloved genre that has nothing to do with my day job, like mysteries. — Monica B. Potts, Class of 2016


We are thrilled to share the announcement of the Afghanistan Observatory Scholars. The program is a collaboration between the Fellows Program and Future Frontlines. Learn more about the Scholars here.

Jessica Bruder wrote the cover story for the Atlantic's May issue. 

Clint Smith's How the Word is Passed was awarded the National Book Critics Cirlce Award for nonfiction.

Mike Giglio wrote about Stewart Rhodes and the Oath Keepers for the Intercept.

Andrea Elliott's Invisible Child was awarded the 2022 J. Anthony Lukas Book Prize.

Bartow Elmore was awarded the Dan David Prize which recognizes outstanding scholarship that illuminates the past and seeks to anchor public discourse in a deeper understanding of history.

Anna Louie Sussman interviewed Polish abortion activists for the Cut. 

Andrea Elliott and Katie Engelhart were nominated for the New York Public Library's Helen Bernstein Award for Excellence in Journalism.

Nonny de la Peña was awarded a Peabody Field Builder Award.

Two Cents
New America Events

The top 3 New America events we recommend you check out. Now.



The Forever Prisoner

Join the Internation Security Program for a conversation with author Cathy Scott-Clark about her new book. Learn more


The Tech That Comes Next

Join the Public Interest Technology Program for a conversation with the authors, Afua Bruce and Amy Sample Ward, about their new book. Learn more


The Bin Laden Papers

Join New America for a conversation with author Nelly Lahoud about her new book, in conversation with Peter Bergen. Learn more

Reading this month

An awesome archival achievement that illuminates the inseparability of race, money, and empire in the modern world.
— Ellen D. Wu,
Class of 2022

Learn More

A well-researched and charming podcast about 20th century country music and the lives of those who made it.
— Karen Levy,
Class of 2019

Learn More

Morton gives us a radically new framework to make sense of phenomena that have put strains on our old ways of thinking: from evolution to nuclear weapons to global warming.
— Yi-Ling Liu,
Class of 2021

Learn More

footer logo


We are storytellers who generate big, bold ideas that have an impact and spark new conversations about the most pressing issues of our day.

The two who put this together

Sarah Baline + Awista Ayub

Join the Conversation

Subscribe to this newsletter

Thoughts or questions?

Privacy Policy|Email designed by Iced Coffee Please

You are receiving this email because you signed up to receive newsletters from New America. Click to update your subscription preferences or unsubscribe from all New America newsletters.