November 02, 2006


Exile on Main Street: A Season in Hell with the Rolling Stones. By Robert Greenfield. Da Capo. $24.

The Strange Case of Hellish Nell: The Story of Helen Duncan and the Witch Trial of World War II. By Nina Shandler. Da Capo. $25.

The Patient from Hell: How I Worked with My Doctors to Get the Best of Modern Medicine and How You Can Too. By Stephen H. Schneider, Ph.D., with Janica Lane. Da Capo. $15.95.

     How have the mighty forces of Hell fallen.  The word still has power in some circles, but it has been largely overshadowed as a curse by words redolent of bodily functions; and it is now used figuratively – sometimes even in a positive sense – by writers trying to make a point.

     Thus, Exile on Main Street: A Season in Hell with the Rolling Stones has the second part of its title specifically to remind fans that the Stones’ 1971 double album, Exile on Main Street, resulted from a time when Mick Jagger fled England (and its confiscatory tax rates) while Keith Richards settled down in a mansion in France to make a very strong effort to kill himself with pretty much any drug that came within arm’s reach – especially favoring heroin.  The fact that Jagger and Richards are still around and still performing 35 years later – both are grandparents now – inevitably robs Exile on Main Street of some power and forces it to speak almost entirely to the baby boomers who remember the Rolling Stones’ implosion after the violence at Altamont but who nevertheless consider Exile on Main Street the Stones’ last great album.  Robert Greenfield, who also wrote of the Stones’ 1972 tour and penned biographies of Timothy Leary and Jerry Garcia, knows exactly what sort of audience he is after.  He is no music critic, he points out, but someone who wants to show “how relentless it was” to be part of the sex-drugs-and-rock ‘n’ roll scene in (or near) the Stones’ heyday.  This is a top-notch gossip book for those whose gossiping is focused three decades in the past.

     Go back even further, and give “Hell” something closer to its traditional meaning, and you find The Strange Case of Hellish Nell, which is about a witchcraft trial, of all things, during World War II.  “Nell” was Helen Duncan, a mother of six and grandmother of four who was tried in 1944 under the Witchcraft Act of 1735.  Winston Churchill himself thought the trial was “tomfoolery,” but Nell was found guilty and jailed until the war’s end.  For what?  For holding séances at which she claimed to channel spirits that seemed to know a little too much about British ship movements.  Unable to muster enough evidence to try Nell as a spy, prosecutors decided (in the name of national security) to try her as a witch.  This is a strange story, one of those byways of war that are unlikely to find a wide audience but that will fascinate people immersed in the era.  Nina Shandler tells the tale well, having done a great deal of primary research in diaries, personal papers and formerly classified documents.  But readers seeking an answer to the mysteries of Nell’s séances will be disappointed: no one is quite sure if Nell was a victim, a charlatan or a real medium.

     To see to what extent the word “Hell” has been transformed in the present, one need only turn to The Patient from Hell, in which Stephen H. Schneider urges readers to become just that.  Yes, you want to be the patient from Hell, he argues, because if you are not, you will receive only average treatment, suitable for statistically average patients but probably not for you as an individual.  Schneider’s railing against the depersonalization of modern medicine is nothing new, but his approach to improving care has much to recommend it.  Schneider had a potentially fatal illness – mantle cell lymphoma, a rare form of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma – so he had no intention of simply listening to doctors and doing whatever they told him to do.  It was his own life for which he was fighting, and he was not going to be pleasant and cooperative if that resulted in anything less than the absolute best care.  Schneider urges patients to create partnerships with their doctors, seek experimental and unconventional treatments, and convince specialists to create individualized treatment protocols – not just to use standard approaches.  This is, on one level, simply an argument to treat the patient, not the disease – something the best doctors already do.  And it is an argument to take control of your own health, however dire your condition seems to be – not a new idea, but one that bears repeating.  Schneider’s cancer is fully in remission, so this plan clearly worked for him, and his self-praise is justified.  But that does not mean it will work for everyone: neither Schneider nor the by-the-book doctors he reviles can succeed in every patient by taking the same approach all the time.

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