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The Illness That Had No Name

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When she finds out that what she’s suffered from all her life has a name, this news is delivered matter-of-factly by her mother’s therapist. “I don’t understand how it’s taken this long for someone to diagnose you,” he says. I wondered the same thing.

Beginning at an early age, Stern was tested by doctors, specialists and tutors. She was evaluated for visual, learning and hearing disabilities; cognitive impairments; ambidexterity; motor-skill deficits. She was measured and scored by an endless array of adults, all of whom seemed oblivious to her actual symptoms. Stern believed herself to be defective, crazy and dumb.

Upon receiving her diagnosis, she reflects, “I’ve spent my entire life battling some impossible, invisible plague no one ever seemed to see, and this guy did it with such ease, as though panic disorder is easy to establish, obvious to anyone who would take the time to ask what my symptoms were.” The statement is all the more remarkable given that Stern was raised in Manhattan, the epicenter of neurotic behavior — not to mention shrinks. Yet everyone, including her mother, seemed to be looking in the wrong place, colluding in a misplaced vigilance focused on Stern’s intellectual performance, physical health and adaptability rather than her feelings.

As a child, Stern shuttles between a brownstone in Greenwich Village, which she shares with her bohemian mother and siblings, and her remarried father’s apartment in an affluent neighborhood uptown, where “a weekend lasts an entire month.” When 6-year-old Etan Patz disappears nearby in 1979, the police come to Stern’s mother’s house asking about the boy, and Stern internalizes an ominous message: “My mom always tells me bad things like that don’t happen to kids. But I know they do.”

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Patz’s disappearance haunts her for years to come. When the “Still Missing” posters in SoHo are plastered over, she is furious. How will anyone find him? When she and her mother walk past buildings, she wonders whether he’s inside, waiting to be discovered. In college, during a spiral of panic, she is overcome with guilt. Maybe she didn’t look for him hard enough, or in the right places.


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