When Newton psychiatrist Dr. Susan Rako was 22 years old she had a compelling urge to write "a book of wisdom," but soon realized that she hadn’t lived long enough to be able to do so with grace and authority.
In the 43 years since then, she has gained much wisdom, from both her observations of human behavior with the patients in her care, and her own self-exploration and therapy, leading her to distill what she has learned into a very personal book of wisdom of a different sort - her newly published memoir, "That’s How the Light Gets In: Memoir of a Psychiatrist."
The memoir is a beautifully written and thoughtfully reflective narrative of a fascinating life, well lived in part because of the author’s ability to step back and honestly assess not only others, but herself. Rako doesn’t gloss over or romanticize the difficult parts of her life, and neither does she complain about them. She accepts all of her experiences as vital to forming the person she is today and views life’s adventures as both mysterious and magical.
In her psychiatric practice, she encourages her patients to find the truth of their feelings, thoughts and past experiences. With her writing, she hopes readers will take what she has to offer in the same vein. "What I want readers to take from this book is the courage to be truthful with themselves," she says.
A curious mind and a quest for truth have led Rako down many interesting paths in her life. Born in Worcester, an only child surrounded by a large extended Russian Jewish family, Rako became a piano prodigy at a young age, playing with the Philadelphia Orchestra at the age of 14. Education was very important to her family and even though her parents couldn’t afford to go to college themselves, they encouraged Rako to pursue her dream to become a doctor. She was awarded a full scholarship to Wellesley College in 1957 and began her first year of medical school at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in 1962.
"I went to medical school because I was curious about how our bodies worked. I became a psychiatrist because I was curious how our minds worked," she says, adding, "And the curiosity wasn’t a cool dispassionate curiosity. It was an urgent curiosity."
That curiosity was fulfilled by what amounted to two full-time jobs, as a psychiatrist and a mother for many years, but Rako always felt that something was missing. It wasn’t until she was in her forties and her daughter Jennifer left for college that she began to feel her creative spirit blossom.
"All of the creative life force that I had poured into parenting her then found other roads. And also, during the years I was parenting her, I was also developing myself, so that when she left I was really much better prepared to follow my dreams," Rako recalls.
Those dreams and a love of theater and film led Rako to earn a M.S. in film production at Boston University in 1988. She also pursued her love of writing, choosing subjects of women’s reproductive health that she felt passionate about to focus on.
The memoir actually began in a flurry of creative output for another book she was writing about testosterone and women’s health titled, "The Hormone of Desire, The Truth about Testosterone, Sexuality and Menopause." After years of doing research for the book, it was still only about half written in 1995. With a deadline looming, she took a two-week vacation from her psychiatric practice and rented a house near Harding’s Beach in Chatham to finish it.
Her research and knowledge of the subject, as well as writing day and night served her well, and nine days later, the book was done - but Rako wasn’t. With her creative urge in full swing, she used the remaining days of her retreat to begin writing the stories of her own life.
The memoir was put on hold while she focused her attention on another cutting edge topic of reproductive health that alarmed her - the trend to pharmaceutically stop normal menstruation in healthy young women.
As young women eagerly cast aside the monthly inconvenience of their periods, Rako was concerned by the lack of education and information about the hazards of such a choice and wrote "No More Periods?: The Risks of Menstrual Suppression and Other Cutting-Edge Issues About Hormones and Women’s Health," published in 2003.
When that book was finished, she was thrilled to return to the life stories she had begun. Even though she worked hard with her previous books to craft narratives that were both informative and engaging, the sensational and ground breaking topics she wrote about took center stage. With her memoir, she could focus on the art of telling a good story.
"I love to write and with this book I was free to just write," Rako says.
Just before she turned in the manuscript for the memoir, Rako founded Women’s Health on Alert (WHOA), a non-profit organization dedicated to educating women and their doctors about cutting edge issues in women’s reproductive health. As president of the organization, Rako writes grant applications, sets up and moderates panel discussions and workshops and contacts speakers who have useful information to share. It is a role that allows her to bring all of her talents together for one cause.
In May, for a fundraiser for WHOA, Rako was the executive producer of "Hysterics," a one woman play by Le Clanche du Rand, a white South African raised by a black nanny whose adjustment to American life and medicine is both poignant and funny. Rako also appears in Giovanna Chesler’s new documentary, "Period: The End of Menstruation?"
A large part of her passion for this subject comes from her own experiences. Her personal research made her determined to challenge other women to learn about the health issues that affect them and make educated choices.
"I know women who don’t have medical training can want to throw their hands up and put themselves in the hands of somebody who they hope knows the right thing. But unfortunately I think today, more than ever I think that women need to learn these things themselves. You have to have a basis for making a decision about what makes sense to you, but very often people just want to think that the doctor knows best and unfortunately that’s not always true," she says.
With her work with WHOA and her psychiatric practice keeping her pretty busy these days, she is taking a brief hiatus from writing until the next inspiration comes. "Nothing is pressing me that needs saying in a strong enough way that I can tell you yet what it is. But I haven’t much doubt it will come."