Shanghai Girls-Insightful Novel

July 28, 2010
Michael Blumenfield, MD

Dr. Blumenfield explains the psychiatry ties found abundantly in the novel Shanghai Girls.

This post originally appeared online at psychiatrytalk.com.

The Privileges and Pleasures of Being A Therapist

After treating patients with psychoanalytic or psychodynamic psychotherapy for a period of time, we usually have a fairly good understanding of their personal and family dynamics. We come to understand their relationships, as well as their culture and customs, which may be quite different than our own. If the therapy has gone on for several years, we have seen how the patient and his or her environment interacts with important life events, such as going to college, pregnancy, tragedies. and even epic historical events, such as war and 9/11. This is one of the privileges and great pleasures of being a therapist. In addition to helping our patients have a more gratifying and fulfilling life, we have learned a great deal, been enriched all the while sitting in our offices (hopefully remembering to take time for exercise and other things).

As Well As Reading A Good Novel

I recently was reminded how we can get a similar rewarding experience by reading a good novel. I just completed such a book titled Shanghai Girls by Lisa See. As best I can tell from supplementary reading, the author is not explicitly writing about her own life and family. She has researched her subject and her characters quite well by conducting many interviews and reviewing oral histories in order to convey a very authentic story. She also appears to have very good insight and empathic understanding of the emotions that the protagonists of the novel could have.

Shanghai Girls

As the story opens, the reader is introduced to two “beautiful” sisters age 18 and 21 who are living somewhat of an upper class exciting city life in Shanghai, China in 1937. We get a feel for their family dynamics, which are embedded in the Chinese customs and culture of the time. We see devotion to parents but yet a struggle when an arranged marriage is imposed upon the sisters. We follow these girls and their family as they confront the Japanese invasion of their country, their attempt to flee, the death of family members, and most poignantly, a brutal rape and the consequences of it. The story covers a time span of about twenty years, which allows for a maturation and evolution of the characters as well as the effect of new historical events. The sisters come to the United States and struggle with the problems that immigrants had to face in trying to make this transition. They confront cruel discrimination against the Chinese. Family secrets fester. We see the impact of parental values surface. Religious views, issues of conscience, teenage rebellion, and the effects of previous traumatic experiences are all interwoven in this story. There are insights into the thoughts and feelings of immigrants trying to live in a new culture, which can easily be reapplied when we look at the plight of the undocumented Latinos in the US today or reflect back on the experiences of the Jews, as well as other groups who have tried to become part of the melting pot that is America.

I strongly recommend this book and contend it will provide useful clinical insights for therapists, as well as good reading for everyone.

Michael Blumenfield, MD, is a board-certified psychiatrist practicing in Woodland Hills, CA. He blogs at PsychiatryTalk.com — a blog for everyone interested in mental health issues.