A book walks into The Hypno Room

Reviewing books through the lens of psychology

I Who Have Never Known Men

This book makes an interesting read and compels keen exploration into the depths of existential inquiry. It inspires introspection on themes such as what the human mind needs to exist or to be happy and profound contemplation on themes such as beauty, time, and the human experience.

I Who Have Never Known Men is set in a dystopian world where forty women find themselves inexplicably confined in a desolate bunker, for an unknown length of time, for reasons unbeknown to them. They are provided with meagre meals, fabric and soap. Quite early on in the book, the women are able to escape the cage but find themselves in an endless barren land. The weather is pleasant and they have enough food to survive forever but they have nothing else. No books, no paper, no music, no form of entertainment and very few memories.

Here are some of the themes that stood out for me:

Men-Women

The absence of men serves as a subtle yet poignant backdrop through the narrative, especially the endless barren land. In the absence of men, some of the women came together as couples, but could that compensate for the absence of men? The interplay between genders underscores a complex tapestry of human identity and connection, beyond desire and procreation and highlights the linkages that define humanity.

Hope

Hope is intrinsically linked with optimism, a way of looking at things where you believe that good things will happen and the negative situations that you face will ultimately turn around. Hope is linked with not only better performance and achievement of goals but also better health and wellness. What happens to hope when people are faced with extreme adversity like a terminal illness? Hopelessness can undermine life’s worth and resilience, making it hard to face up to and fight negative experiences. Is hope the difference between the people who defy odds and survive beyond their cancer prognosis?

Love

The narrator acknowledges at some point that she had experienced love, despite not being aware of it at the time. During the long years of despair, she had a mother figure who cared for her and nurtured her, whom she had loved. Love is an emotion a bit like happiness that people often find elusive. You can care for someone, you can feel lust, you can feel a sense of obligation, brotherhood, sisterhood, friendship, warmth. But what is love? Can you feel it in its entirety? From my point of view, if your normal state of life is low, emotions depleted and happiness unachievable, then feeling emotions like love can feel like a stretch, where you might be trying really hard but still can’t feel anything. If you really want to feel this emotion, it is worth making a separate goal of learning to be happy.

Happiness

What is happiness? Can you push yourself to be happy? I’d say it’s a process. You can find happiness if you decide to. Happiness can be your normal state, where it’s not conditional and based on an event in the future. You can be happy while you work towards your goals and enjoy each moment of the journey. It takes desire, understanding and practice.

Beauty

Is a stark, barren land beautiful? Does beauty have a purpose? Does beauty contribute to happiness? Beauty in nature and humanity can captivate us and stir us, fill us with wonderment and awe. But, can that beauty be objective? Can too much beauty be boring? Do we need to experience its antithesis to truly appreciate beauty? Do we process beautiful things differently? Beauty can impact our cognition and judgment (think Halo effect). Beauty can transform, inspire, connect.

Time

Minutes, hours, days, weeks, months and years meant nothing for these women who were first caged and then ‘free’. They didn’t know if they were on earth or another planet. Each day was the same, with the same amount of hope, same level of happiness, exercise, curiosity, loneliness and being. The protagonist tried to keep time by counting heartbeats, a beautiful metaphor for Immanuel Kant’s theory of space and time. Kant postulated that time is not a construct of the external world but more of a mental structure through which we organise our own sensory experiences. We cannot experience things without the concept of time. Time provides the framework within which all our experiences occur.

Trauma

The narrator was taken away from her family when she was just two years old. The others were separated from their husbands, children and partners at different points in their lives. They were disrespected and dehumanised in the cage, after enduring the immense trauma of being separated from their families and lives. The narrator didn’t seem to have any memories of the past and the others seemed to have very few. The trauma these women had endured was immense and they carried the weight of it all year after year. The blocking of emotions and memories seemed to be their survival instinct, their bodies and mind trying to cope with what they had gone through and what they had to continue enduring. Blocking of unprocessed emotions and events can however manifest itself in different and unhealthy ways in a person’s life.

The whip

The guards used whips to control the women’s behaviour enforcing rules that included no touching. The women soon enough grow institutionalised and continue to think of the whip even in their years of freedom. The whip is an interesting metaphor for how we are all imprisoned by our collective and individual conditioning.