The Complete Neurotic’s Notebook, by Mignon McLaughlin

No one has ever loved anyone the way everyone wants to be loved.

Mignon McLaughlin opened her first book of aphorisms, The Neurotic’s Notebook, with this succinct symmetrical line that hits the reader like a hand grenade.

Mignon "Mike" McLaughlin, author of 'The Neurotic's Notebooks'A book of aphorisms is among the most perishable of publications. It’s too small to command any attention on the bookshelf, too atomic in composition to be considered as a complete work, too light to carry any critical weight. The Complete Neurotic’s Notebook, published in 1981, collects McLaughlin’s 1963 book and its 1966 successor, The Second Neurotic’s Notebook, in one volume–of average size because the text is in large print–yet of the three books I can locate just 25 used copies in total available for sale online. Leaves pressed into books survive better than that.

Each notebook is divided into ten identical chapters, each collecting roughly 50 to 60 statements related to topics such as “Love and Marriage,” “Men and Women,” “Getting and Spending,” “God and the Devil,” and my favorite, “The General Orneriness of Things.” Although both put together amount to no more words than Jonathan Livingston Seagull, I doubt anyone could consume them in one sitting if even one in ten statements is given serious consideration. Yet I wouldn’t class it as a good bathroom read, because the truth in more than a few of these aphorisms is pretty grim: “Don’t look for God where He is needed most; if you didn’t bring Him there, He isn’t there.”

Cover of 'The Complete Neurotic's Notebook'Despite the titles, the tone of the books, if one can say a collection of sayings has a tone, is not particularly neurotic. McLaughlin had worked as the managing editor of Glamour magazine, had co-written a Broadway play, Gayden, with her husband, the novelist Robert McLaughlin, and was the mother of two teen-age boys at the time the books were published. There is a strong air of experience and authority, not neurosis, in many of them. Time’s review of the first notebook was titled, “With Dash & Bitters,” and observed that, “McLaughlin’s brand of bitterness is more Angostura than Angst.” Even “bitterness” seems to me off the mark. Her outlook is hardly rosy, but neither is it yellowed with the acidic cynicism of Ambrose Bierce in The Devil’s Dictionary.

More than a few even sound a little like they were first said to McLaughlin’s own sons:

Don’t be yourself–be someone a little nicer.

If it came true, it wasn’t much of a dream.

A car is useless in New York, essential everywhere else. The same with good manners.

It is always safe to tell people that they’re looking wonderful.

Cash is the one gift everyone despises and no one turns down.

It’s easy enough to get along with a loved and loving child–at least till you try to get him to do something.

I suppose one of the reasons that such little books of little sayings get such little respect in a critical sense is that there isn’t much you can say about them. There is no such thing as plot, characterization, structure, themes or symbolism. There are just these sayings, and what can one do but repeat the ones that seem most penetrating, apt or funny. Such as,

Women are good listeners, but it’s a waste of time telling your troubles to a man unless there’s something specific you want him to do.

There. I saved you the trouble of having to read Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus.

When I pick up The Complete Neurotic’s Notebook, what usually strikes me most is the wisdom behind so many of its lines:

It does not undo harm to acknowledge that we have done it; but it undoes us not to acknowledge it.

Every group feels strong once it has found a scapegoat.

Everybody can write; writers can’t do anything else.

The only courage that matters is the kind that gets you from one moment to the next.

When threatened, the first thing a democracy gives up is democracy.

If the second marriage really succeeds, the first one didn’t really fail.

It’s not surprising a reviewer for the Los Angeles Times wrote of McLaughlin’s aphorisms, “… you have the feeling they eliminate the need for all five feet of Dr. Harvard’s shelf of books.”

McLaughlin and her husband retired to Florida in the 1970s, where she died in 1983, just a year or so after The Complete Neurotic’s Notebook was published. Copies of the book now command as much as $350, but you can find a number of collected sayings from the book online:

The Complete Neurotic’s Notebook, by Mignon McLaughlin
Indianapolis, Indiana: Castle Books, 1981

10 thoughts on “The Complete Neurotic’s Notebook, by Mignon McLaughlin

  1. I have a small collection of similar books — Karl Kraus, of course (in translation, alas, since I’m not able to read German) and began with the Viking Book of Aphorisms, which was edited by W.H. Auden (which is why I picked it up) and Louis Kronenberger.
    There are also books aplenty full of quotations on a single subject, but while those books provide a lot of different ideas, the less-common books by a single author, on many subjects, is more like an autobiography that tells it’s truth slant.

  2. I grew up with the wisdom of Mignon McLaughlin, which at one time graced the monthly pages of one of the more popular women’s magazines of the early 1960s. So when, some years later, I first learned of the existence of her two books, “The Neurotic’s Notebook” and “The Second Neurotic’s Notebook,” I was quick to snap these up through either eBay or Amazon. To me, the depth of McLaughlin’s perceptions on life are like Erma Bombeck’s observations on steroids! What a mind McLaughlin possessed, in that she was able to describe both complex and layered human issues with a clarity of expression that almost sings the truth into the listener’s memory. I can only wish McLaughlin had lived longer, or that circumstances would have given her a larger reputation in the world, during her lifetime.

  3. I read the first Neurotic’s Notebook when I was in high school, and although I lost the book somewhere along the way, bits and pieces stuck with me and pop into my memory from time to time. In fact, it was remembering “No one has ever loved anyone the way everyone wants to be loved” that sent me on the search that brought me to this page.

  4. This book has been on my amazon wish list for a few years, just waiting for me to decide that I could justify spending the money on it. Today it showed up at my door! So glad I shared that wish list with my husband :) he’s the best! I’m loving the book.

  5. After graduation in 1963, The Neurotic’s Notebook was the first book I purchased. I purchased it from a bookstore that had just opened in my neighborhood, a place that became a favorite place for me to visit.

  6. Yes, well re-published but not exactly true to the original. A disclaimer in the Introduction reads: “A note on the selection: No aphorism has been excluded because it is ‘politically incorrect.’ A handful, however, with references that are dated, have been omitted, as have a few that seemed neither original, true, nor amusing.”

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