Summary: Prologue and Part 1, Chapters 1-3
The prologue is a short excerpt from the diary of Alicia Berenson. First, she reflects upon her own motives for keeping a diary, as she feels that, as an artist, she is better with pictures than with words. Her husband, Gabriel, notices that she has been feeling depressed lately, and he recommends that she keep a diary as a record of her feelings. Gabriel buys her the diary, a small book with a black leather cover. Alicia loves Gabriel passionately, and she admits that she is only writing in the diary to make him happy. At the end of the diary entry, she worries that her love for Gabriel might be too strong, even overwhelming, but she cuts herself off before she can finish the thought. She wants her diary to be a “joyful” record of good memories and positive ideas that inspire her artistically, and she promises not to write down any “crazy” thoughts in her diary.
Theo narrates this chapter, which covers the details of the murder of Gabriel Berenson, a fashion photographer based in London, England. After a busy day photographing models for Vogue magazine, Gabriel returns home late. His wife of seven years, Alicia Berenson, has spent the day working in her studio at home. She is 33 years old and a highly successful painter, whose work Theo admires greatly. Around 11 o’clock, Barbie Hellman, who lives next door to the Berensons, hears several gunshots coming from the direction of their home and calls the police. When the police arrive, they find a gruesome and bloody scene: Gabriel Berenson is dead, bound to a chair with rope. He has been shot in the head. Standing just a few feet in front of him is his wife, Alicia, who is covered in his blood. She will not speak, even in her own defense. Her only statement on the murder is a painting she makes while awaiting trial, a self-portrait which she entitles Alcestis.
Theo, who has not yet identified himself as the narrator, notes that Alcestis is an Ancient Greek play about a woman named Alcestis who sacrifices herself for her husband, dying in his place. Theo claims that the meaning of this painting became clear to him one day, but he doesn’t want to “spoil” the story and returns to the beginning. He goes to view the painting at an art gallery in Soho, London, managed by Jean-Felix Martin. In the painting, Alicia is depicted nude, holding a paintbrush dipped in blood-red paint. Curious onlookers interpret the painting as an admission of guilt. At trial, Alicia maintains her absolute silence. A psychiatrist, Professor Lazarus Diomedes, argues that her silence is a result of deep psychological trauma, and Alicia is found not guilty by means of diminished responsibility. Instead of going to prison, she is institutionalized at a psychiatric ward named The Grove.
Theo finally introduces himself as the narrator. He is a forty-three-year-old psychotherapist who is interviewing for a job at The Grove. When Indira, one of his interviewers, asks what drew him to psychotherapy as a profession, he gives a generic but satisfying answer. However, his actual motivation is personal. Theo was raised by a physically and emotionally abusive father and a weak-willed mother who passively accepted her husband’s arbitrary and violent temper. One of Theo’s only positive memories from childhood is of a night when he sneaked outside to catch snowflakes as they fell, which reminds him that there is a larger world beyond his family home. He works hard at school to gain admittance to college and escape his father, but once he has moved out, he finds that his trauma has followed him. He is paralyzed by feelings of anxiety and self-loathing and is unable to socialize or attend his classes. After attempting suicide by ingesting pills, Theo decides that he isn’t ready to die and meets with a kind psychotherapist named Ruth. Allowing him to speak about his feelings, Ruth gives Theo space in which to heal, and he is profoundly grateful. After college, he decides to go to London to train to become a psychotherapist like Ruth.
Alicia Berenson’s first diary entry, which opens the novel, hints at her past struggles with mental health. She forces herself to maintain a cheerful tone, pushing aside what she describes as “crazy” thoughts in favor of positive ones, and focusing on good memories and sources of artistic inspiration. She firmly represses her own negative emotions, particularly those concerning her husband. These first few chapters also introduce us to the narrator, Theo, who has similar issues regarding mental health. As he himself admits, he works as a psychotherapist because he’s “f***** up.” After a childhood marked by severe parental abuse, he has struggled to escape the long shadows of his past and has even attempted suicide. Only the intervention of Ruth, his therapist, allows him to move past his strong feelings of self-loathing. For Theo, therapy was literally lifesaving, and he makes it his life’s mission to help others who struggle with similar issues. He is a firm believer in the benefits of therapy, and more specifically, the “talking cure” promoted by German psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud. In fact, many chapters are prefaced with quotes from Freud, who wrote extensively on the topics of childhood trauma and emotional repression.
Theo takes a keen interest in the case of Alicia Berenson. Her refusal or inability to speak, even to defend herself in court, presents an intriguing professional challenge to him as a psychotherapist whose methods rely on speaking with his patients about their feelings. He is not the only person who is intrigued by her silence. In fact, her trial becomes a media spectacle, due to the shocking nature of Gabriel’s murder and Alicia’s refusal to explain or justify her actions. The art gallery that represents her work, run by her former friend Jean-Felix, becomes a pilgrimage site for curious onlookers who attempt to fill the void left by Alicia’s silence with their own theories. Alicia’s silence, a prominent motif in the novel, invites a wide range of different interpretations from the greedy public and from those close to her. The painting that she works on after Gabriel’s murder, titled Alcestis, does little to satisfy the public’s curiosity. In the painting, she portrays herself in a realistic and unsparing fashion, with an unreadable, neutral expression. Because she does not act like a typical grieving widow, the public readily assumes that she is guilty of Gabriel’s murder. Alicia, the “silent patient” of the novel’s title, becomes a blank slate upon which others project their own assumptions and biases.
We also learn about Gabriel in these early chapters. Alicia’s journal entries present him as an ideal husband who brings her happiness that she has never previously known. Theo, however, dismisses Gabriel as little more than a trendy photographer who shoots nude or semi-nude women from striking and provocative angles. Theo expresses his strong preference for Alicia’s art, which he regards as emotionally raw and powerful. Theo, however, is an unreliable narrator, and his prejudiced reporting of events clouds our perception of other characters throughout the novel. His strong interest in Alicia’s case is almost as inexplicable as Alicia’s silence, and his decision to leave his job at Broadmoor to apply to The Grove shows that he is willing to make significant personal sacrifices to get closer to Alicia. Theo’s fascination with her seems to exceed the bounds of professional interest.