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Writer urges us to reclaim our sleep

Photo by Kathleen Brennan

Katt Duff loves sleep so much, she had to write a book about it. In a recent phone interview, Duff explained that in writing The Secret Life of Sleep, she “mined” her own experience and memories of sleep and then set about researching the history of sleep, insomnia, sleep in science, philosophy, and the pharmaceutical industry.

One day, her publisher asked, “What’s your point here?” Duff said she wasn’t trying to make a point. There were no tips for sleeping better. She explained she was “trying to open up a world for people.” Structured around a night’s sleep—falling asleep, sleep’s stages, insomnia, dreaming, and reawakening—the book offers no quick fixes. Instead it opens many doors for further investigation and study. In doing so, the book changes the ways in which we might think about sleep.

Sleep as journey into the underworld

I met Kat Duff in 1998 in Taos, New Mexico, five years after she published The Alchemy of Illness, a stunning inquiry into the nature and purpose of chronic illness. That summer, we were both at work on our second books, novels that in some way retold the Greek myth about Persephone’s abduction into the Underworld. We talked a lot about the underground journey and its various forms in literature—the stories of Inanna, Gilgamesh, and Orpheus—as, among other things, a psychological allegory about depression.

I asked her if this new book on sleep had any roots in the abandoned novel about Persephone.

“Well, yes,” she said, “I suppose so. Sleep is a kind of underground journey, a journey into another world that is not recognized or accepted by our every day world and is hard to remember or carry into ordinary life. It’s amazing to me how much we want to ignore that world while at the same time we complain about not enough sleep.”

At issue here is our inner life. In a chapter called “The Social Divide,” Duff describes the widening gap between sleep and waking consciousness. She briefly traces the history of the marginalization of not only our own subjective experience, but also the mythologies that once provided its context. 

“I was most familiar with Greek mythology,” she explained. “[The Greeks] paid a lot of attention to sleep and dreams and how that material is worked in us. I was surprised to find out how my Eastern philosophical traditions had studied sleep. Three or four thousand years [later], we think we’ve just discovered it. But there’s so much folklore and cultural life passed down from generation to generation. Everything that mothers learn from their mothers to promote sleep [like] lullabies.

“With the Enlightenment we sort of erased our awareness. Darkness became aligned with [what] we were tying to rise above—emotions, feelings. We wanted rational control, and you can’t control sleep. Sleep is one of the ways we return to nature. By responding to alternating phases of light and darkness, we return to our natural cycles, and join with all of life.”

Sleep and health

It’s no news that regular sleep is important to our overall health.  In her work as a counselor, Duff has found increasingly that a good night’s sleep is instrumental—even essential—to our emotional well-being. As part of her intake process, she routinely asks her clients how they are sleeping.

“Once they got more sleep,” she said, “their issues became more manageable. Even bipolar disorder and major depression are often preceded by six months of sleep problems.”

On the other hand, as she states in the book, the “effects of sleep disruption on mood, perception, and behavior are so strong” physicians sometimes misdiagnose patients as having psychiatric disorders when those patients “simply need better sleep.”

Along with diagnoses come medications. In a chapter on the commercialization of sleep, Duff notes: “The use of sleeping pills among adults between twenty and forty-five doubled between 2000 and 2004. In 2011, 60 million Americans filled prescriptions for sleep medications, up from 46 million in 2006.”

Statistics that I find deeply disturbing.

The problem is not so much the amount of sleep we get or how we get it, as it is our relationship with sleep.

 “We want to commodify it,” said Duff. “[We want sleep to] help our days be better rather than offering its own vantage point. It’s about productivity. We keep going over the day’s events, but we process them with a different mind, much more associative, which works more by Gestalt. That’s why people will come up with solutions [when they’re asleep]. It’s non-conscious processing, which goes on when we’re awake as well. But we don’t pay attention to that either.”

Duff points out that the problem isn’t with science, but with “scientism”. She is glad that scientists are paying attention to sleep and making serious studies, but she worries about them “jumping on the bandwagon of making money—selling us machines and pills.”

She encourages us to take back our sleep, which she likens to a “natural resource, like water and air, surreptitiously taken from us and being sold back to us in products we need to sleep."


Central to any discussion of slumber is the phenomenon of dreaming. It’s one of the reasons Duff is so intrigued with sleep. She explained that she has been part of dream circles since leaving home at 18. Rather than promoting any particular way of working with dreams in her book, she wanted to emphasis dreaming as a “rich resource” and an essential part of our heritage.

“When writing this book,” she said, “I thought I’d have more dreams about working out problems in the book, but I didn’t so much. I’m at an age when you tend to remember fewer dreams. But also since I was so immersed, my psyche didn’t need to grab hold of me every night and say ‘hey listen to me’. Once the book came out, I started having dreams about how to respond.

“One was a race between a really fast modern steel train and a kangaroo. The kangaroo was easily kind of lopping along. The train was working hard to push, push, push up a mountain side, and the train was falling behind and eventually crashed.”

The dream, she said, “seemed to describe two ways of getting [the book] noticed. One dogged: push it, push it on Goodreads. The other: let it run along as it runs along.”

The Secret Life of Sleep is a brave and necessary book, despite its faults, which include an irritating repetitiveness and too much research; failings I suspect are more the editor’s than the writer’s. What’s missing here is the compelling depth and intimacy of her first book on illness. But then, perhaps the real power of The Secret Life of Sleep is the challenge Kat Duff sets before us: to reclaim our sleep.

What we do with it then is our responsibility.

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