Alumni Spotlight: Charles Barber ’80

Charles Barber ‘80 is a writer and mental health professional. After attending Andover, Barber studied at both Harvard and Columbia University. He has worked for ten years in homeless shelters and with the mentally ill in New York City. Barber is also an Associate of the Program for Recovery and Community Health at the Yale University School of Medicine. In addition, Barber is the author of “Songs from the Black Chair: A Memoir of Mental Interiors,” a book about his own struggles and the clients he talked with in his basement office at Bellevue Hospital. His inspiration comes from his own experience with obsessive-compulsive disorder. In his book, he talks with his patients about their mental and physical problems ranging from AIDS to prison time. Reviews for the book have praised his unique approach and powerful writing style. What interests you in the field of mental health? Because of personal experiences, I have often been able to relate to many of my clients. I found I was good at helping people, and even with people with severe pathologies, I found the work uplifting. The field has also undergone a lot of changes, mainly for the better, since I’ve been involved in it, and it keeps things exciting and interesting. When did you first decide to pursue writing and working with the mentally ill? After working in “direct care” in shelters and housing programs for many years, I was drawn to research and writing as a way of addressing and reaching a broader group of people. I’d always wanted to be a writer, as well. Tell us about your book “Songs from the Black Chair”. It’s largely the story of my own experience with obsessive-compulsive disorder and how that led me, directly and indirectly, to work in homeless shelters. It combines very personal material with stories of clients that I worked with. The book was published a couple of years ago and won a Pushcart Prize. Excerpts have been published in The New York Times and featured on National Public Radio. Do you have any suggestions for aspiring writers? You really have to want to do it. The writing life is a hard one and it’s virtually impossible to make a living just writing books. My other suggestion would be to write every day, even if it’s just for five minutes, and to read as much as you can when you’re young. For example, if you find an author you really like, read everything by that writer. Why did you decide to work at homeless shelters in New York for 10 years? It just kind of happened. I needed a job and then I really liked it and worked with people I liked. I gained a tremendous amount: incredibly rewarding work that makes you feel good about yourself, and I have enough stories to last a lifetime. Did Andover influence your career choice? Only in the sense that in some ways I wanted to get away from some of things that Andover represented at the time – privilege and entitlement. [However,] a book I read my upper year, George Orwell’s “Down and Out in Paris and London,” in which [Orwell] decides to become homeless after finishing a school like Andover, had a great influence on me. What do you remember most about Andover? I worked very, very hard in my classes. I wasn’t terribly well prepared academically before coming to Andover and Upper year was a real challenge. Unfortunately, when I was there in the late 1970’s, aspects of Andover were very druggy and not the healthiest of environments. What activities were you involved in at Andover? I was a nerd, primarily. I must say I learned to write at Andover. Thank you, Paul Kalkstein and a teacher called Robert Lopes! I ran cross country and track and was not the most visible of students otherwise. Do you have any advice for current Andover students? Consider the nonprofit world—social service agencies, environmental groups, groups dedicated to numerous causes—as a career path. Non-profit agencies and social service agencies…do tremendous work, are typically well and efficiently run by smart people, and are vastly under appreciated in our society.