‘If This Book Is Not Expressing Everything, What Am I Doing With My Life?’

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‘If This Book Is Not Expressing Everything, What Am I Doing With My Life?’

Daniel Mason, a 42-year-old practicing psychiatrist, spent 14 years writing his latest novel, his first about a doctor — and the costly mistakes he makes.

CreditCreditNoel Spirandelli for The New York Times

By Wyatt Mason
Sept. 12, 2018

Late this spring, off a nondescript hallway in the Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences building at Stanford University, inside a small, windowless office — standing desk; sitting desk; bookcase; chair — the 42-year-old physician Daniel Mason revealed some unease about what we were doing. “I come from a tradition,” Mason said, in his swift, reassuring cadence, “in which some people go into the room without a ring on. So this kind of disclosure is deeply foreign to the kind of work that I do.”

The tradition Mason was referring to is psychiatry; the room in question was the one in which a clinician would encounter distressed patients (in Mason’s case, the inpatient psychiatric unit of Stanford Hospital, where he works as a psychiatrist); the ring was a wedding band; and the kind of disclosure Mason had in mind was his having agreed to answer my questions — the third day of them; the 17th hour of them, by then — questions about his life.

“Some people of an earlier generation would reveal absolutely nothing,” Mason continued, one leg of his long, lean frame crossed loosely over the other. “And I think that, generally, what we’re taught is that if a person asks a personal question, the important thing to ask is why they want to know and what they think.”

So why, exactly, would a married doctor enter a room without a ring?

“The theory behind the ring,” Mason said, his own wedding band visible on the hand resting on his knee, “is if a psychiatrist goes into a room without it, that’s going to change what the patient’s going to share. Much more information is going to come when a patient meets a doctor who’s not wearing a ring and, according to people who believe this very strongly, the patient asks: ‘Are you married?’ That’s a moment when a psychiatrist responds: ‘We could talk about that. But maybe more important right now is what you were feeling when you asked that.’ And then, this door opens — hopefully: We’re always looking for a door that might open — and a patient might say, ‘Well, I imagine that you are married because I imagine that everybody is happily married except for me.’ That’s Answer A. Answer B is: ‘I don’t think you’re married because you’re attracted to me.’ Answer C is: ‘I have no idea. I don’t feel like I can read anybody now. I don’t understand anybody. I didn’t understand my wife, apparently. I don’t understand you.’ Each one of those leads the psychiatrist down these totally different paths. That’s really helpful information.”

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