Jenny Valentish is a journalist well known for her stints in publications such as Dazed and Confused, Tank Girl, and JMag. She first began to self-publish at the age of 16 through her zine Slapper, and Woman of Substances is her ‘research-memoir hybrid’: her second book-length work after the acclaimed novel Cherry Bomb.
If writing is Valentish’s primary passion, then music is her second. From the very beginning of the novel we can see how the UK punk scene influenced her heavily – Valentish grew up in Slough, a satellite town to London. She self-describes as a punk, and someone who not only loves the music but the people and movement within the scene. She is involved with several bands, and is a self-proclaimed groupie.
However, unlike Cherry Bomb, Woman of Substances is an exploration of addiction and treatment, and music just seems to be the engine to pull her tale along. The guiding narrative is Valentish’s tumultuous life, beginning with sexual abuse at the age of seven, followed by extreme ups and downs throughout her adolescence and adulthood, and marked with heavy drinking and alcohol use.
Being a psychology major and having grown up with addiction within my close family, this book instantly intrigued me. With respect to its psychology content – it mostly did not disappoint. Valentish is evidently well researched within the fields of addiction, and her firsthand experience is necessary to the book. If you are guilty of having ever self-diagnosed, trawling through Wikipedia finding disorders with symptoms too relatable to be a coincidence, a lot of Valentish’s novel will interest you. This is essentially a woman’s journey through self-diagnosis.
However, as any psych major or psych-interested individual will know, psychology is a shaky science, and several holes still exist in our knowledge of just how our brains work in relation to addiction (or in relation to anything, for that matter). At times, Valentish seems to just present a smattering of information, diagnostic terms and symptoms, which can leave the reader confused. I don’t believe this to be the fault of Valentish, however, it simply reflects the wide gaps in the field of psychological sciences.
For instance, at times Valentish presents information that seems counter-intuitive and not well backed-up: ‘Low serotonin, for instance, causes higher anxiety and depression, but also higher libido.’ Statements like these obviously contradict what we know about low serotonin (which is traditionally associated with low libido), and leave you wondering if her diagnosis is too broad to have merit.
However, there are some great insights offered by Valentish in certain respects:
‘… it’s actually very difficult to test for dopamine deficiency… dopamine checks are not readily available to the public. What would be the point anyway? If an individual could triumphantly claim that they undisputedly had dopamine deficiency and were to start their own DD fellowship, they would be blithely ignoring all the other environmental, psychological and cultural issues that will also have contributed to their substance use.’
The book, overall, is readable, and Valentish’s writing is entertaining and unique; the influence of her previous writing as a music journalist keeps the often-dry psychology talk upbeat and engaging. If you are looking for something that will accurately depict the state of research in fields of psychology today, with evidence that really backs up claims being made about how our brains work, then this book may seem a little airy and vague (and disappointing overall). It is a nice bit of pop psychology, a relatable tale of self-diagnosis, and an interesting glimpse into a woman’s struggle with addiction.
Words by Tess Bury
This review first appeared in print volume 88 edition 6 BLUE.