Rethinking the Literature of Schizophrenia


Ask anyone to imagine a person with schizophrenia and they’ll picture a homeless man wandering the streets yelling at passersby, spittle flying, or a violent Malcom Tate-type, convinced that his niece is possessed by the devil. These are the images that linger in common imaginations. They haunt psyches and distort the experiences of the afflicted. Contrary to popular belief, people with schizophrenia are often not violent. They do hear voices, but with medication, people with schizophrenia can and do live fulfilling, even exceptional lives. Take Lori Schiller (The Quiet Room), deemed a disaster, never to recover—she ends up working in the mental health field. Take Elyn Saks (The Center Cannot Hold), now a law school professor and Esmé Weijun Wang (The Collected), a critically acclaimed creative writer. However, some are not as lucky. Marin Sardy (The Edge of Every Day) describes her brother’s suicide in poignant detail. Ron Powers, author of No One Cares About Crazy People, explains that his son, Kevin, suffered the same fate. In writing this article, I didn’t want to paint the devastation of schizophrenia with a rosy gloss—people with schizophrenia do kill themselves, commit murder, end up homeless—rather, I wanted to give a well-rounded portrait of what the disease can look like. Even in Sardy’s and Powers’ texts, where their loved ones don’t survive their illnesses, the authors describe their relatives as three-dimensional beings: people with kindness, talents, experiences and successes apart from their illnesses, things we forget to think about when we think about people with schizophrenia.

The Complications by Emmett Rensin

Emmett Rensin’s hybrid essay collection blends memoir and cultural criticism. Courageous in exploring his own illness, Rensin explains that his issues began to manifest in his early teens, but it wasn’t until his twenties that he received first a bipolar diagnosis, and then, finally, a diagnosis of schizoaffective disorder. Rensin describes the failures of the psychiatric industry. As a teenager, he was sent to an inpatient wilderness program that had little therapeutic benefit—later, upon being diagnosed as bipolar, he confronts the program’s psychologist about the point of his stay in a behavior-based program, since the only effective cure for bipolar is medication. In this vein, Rensin examines how mentally ill persons are deposited into prisons, and, once there, are unable to get proper psychiatric treatment. Often, they commit suicide. Rensin explores the eugenics movement of the early 1900s, where over 50,000 people with mental illness were involuntarily sterilized. He directly advocates that the lives of the disabled are inherently valuable, while demonstrating indirectly through memoir that his existence, although at times difficult for his friends and family, is beneficial: Rensin is a successful writer and a provocative thinker, and his forthright, deeply analyzed essay collection adds necessary insights to how we think about, treat, and interact with the mentally ill. 


The Quiet Room by Lori Schiller

Lori Schiller’s memoir is a portrait of resilience. In the height of her illness, Lori circulated through mental health purgatory. Controlled by voices that commanded her to murder herself and those closest to her, Lori found herself confined to long-term psych words and halfway houses. Many of the staff members thought Lori was a hopeless case, and some—along with one of her brothers—believed her volatile outbursts were an attempt at manipulation rather than a result of true suffering. However, this was during the 1980s, a period of time in which the origins and treatments for severe mental illnesses were misunderstood. During the ‘80s, the clinical consensus was that medication shouldn’t be the primary treatment for psychotic symptoms, a belief that began to shift in the 1990s when clinicians began to implement Clozaril in the treatment of schizophrenia. Clozaril transformed Lori in a way that talk therapy could not: once the most difficult patient on the unit—she had to be subdued with the most extreme form of restraints—Lori became a support to her fellow patients, talking her peers out of suicide and fetching fellow patients when they attempted to escape from the ward. In her afterword, written in 2011, Lori tells readers that she’s been employed as a peer advocate for nearly a decade. She promotes her book and performs speaking engagements about the life-changing effects of Clozaril. She even has a loving marriage with a pro golfer named Steve. Unfazed by her history, he once said: “I deal with crazy people on the golf course every day.” Lori’s memoir combats the harmful myth that people with schizophrenia live out their days in institutions. With straightforward prose and courageous spirit, Lori proves that, with the appropriate medication, people with schizophrenia can live abundantly.


No One Cares About Crazy People by Ron Powers

While our society has made great strides in helping people who suffer from schizophrenia, past attitudes toward the mentally ill are interwoven into the fabric of modern society. Powers is here to remind us of this. He instructs the general reader about the infamous Bedlam Asylum where the mentally ill were beaten and murdered and the eugenics movement that reached its climax in Nazi Germany—a movement which has threads in various modern-day medical schools that advocate for the eradication of bipolar and autism genes. Pharmaceutical companies that charge astronomical prices for antipsychotics—the only remedy for schizophrenia—weed out those in poverty who cannot afford the medicine. But Powers doesn’t just have sociological aims. His son, Kevin, committed suicide when he was twenty years old, three years after receiving a schizophrenia diagnosis. Powers’ older son Dean also suffers from the illness but was able to find lasting help. Although the history of psychiatry and Powers’ segments of memoir don’t mesh seamlessly into one volume, it is the combination of the historical facts and emotionally riveting personal testimony that creates a sense of urgency in readers. Each year, 38,000 people commit suicide and Kevin was part of this statistic. The dueling narrative approach builds a kind of solidarity for those who have been unethically and brutally treated throughout history and for those who continue to suffer. Even more so, Powers’ hybrid memoir is eye-opening: an essential educational for anyone concerned with lessening human suffering.


Tastes Like War by Grace M. Cho

In her efforts to understand her mother’s illness, Grace M. Cho is careful to paint her mother in her multiplicity. Right from the start, she describes her mother’s beauty: “waist-length black hair” and “sun-kissed skin.” She also considers the dark side of her mother’s physical attributes—she worked as a prostitute at the military base where she met Cho’s father, the two then married and moved to Washington State. Before she succumbed to the voices, Cho’s mother was adept at combating the anti-Asian sentiments that would later contribute to and exacerbate her paranoia: she learned to cook American dishes and held parties for the community. With her husband’s military career, Cho’s mother was obligated to act as a single parent, raising her two children on her own. It is from this portrait of resilience that Cho depicts her mother’s descent into schizophrenia. The racist comments that her mother was able to push aside transformed into an unshakable paranoia that rendered her a shut-in, staring at the TV, thinking that the images on the screen were transmitting her messages. Using her mother’s experiences as a template, Cho highlights that trauma, especially race-specific trauma, is a precursor to severe mental illness. Cho’s mother’s story is a critical depiction of schizophrenia, because Cho demonstrates that schizophrenia is not the essence of the afflicted person, but rather the disease that removes the person’s fundamental personality.


The Edge of Every Day by Marin Sardy

Marin Sardy struggles to bear witness to the illness that propelled her mother and brother into a hallucinatory abyss. When Marin was a young girl, her mother divorced her father in a fit of suspicion, believing him to be, not her children’s real father, but a “replacement.” At the height of her paranoia, she bolted to hotels with her children in tow, seeking refuge from the voices that warned her about enemy spies. Most of the book focuses on Marin’s younger brother Tom, whose personality—gentle, a “peacemaker,” energetic, and intelligent—alters into a shadow of his former self when the disease manifests. As his illness progresses, Tom experiences homelessness and faces multiple arrests. He ultimately commits suicide. Marin emphasizes the genetic component of schizophrenia by tracing the illness back to her great-grandmother, Julia, who was convinced that enemies spied on her through the walls of her house. Finding herself in a lineage steeped in schizophrenia, Marin does her best to make sense of the complicated disorder and stay afloat. She discovers relief in gymnastics and sports, but ultimately becomes aligned with Wiccan practices. Her obsession with the occult, admission of suffering from depression, along with subtle comments regarding the difficulty parsing out the real versus the unreal makes readers whether Marin suffers from a mild form of psychosis. Regardless, Marin’s memoir is successful in tracing the origins of a devastating illness.


The Center Cannot Hold by Elyn R. Saks

Written with raw honesty, Elyn R. Saks narrates her journey from schizophrenic patient to award-winning professor. As a child, Saks exhibited delusional symptoms that intensified during her college years. Saks graduated from highly rigorous respected colleges (Vanderbilt, Oxford, Yale). However, each time Saks transitioned to a new academic atmosphere, she would suffer from a psychotic episode, resulting in hospitalization. While Saks suffers from an illness famous for its negative symptoms (disorganized speech, regression in productivity and hygiene practices), Saks’s mental powers are also her greatest asset. In addition to her impressive degrees, Saks is a professor at USC Gould School of Law and the author of numerous books and academic publications. Unfortunately, Saks’s confidence plummets from her frequent hospitalizations, and she measures herself by her academic accomplishments. However, her low self-esteem doesn’t tend toward skewed self-perception. Saks is determined to depict herself as a whole person: she describes herself as friend, daughter, and wife, capable of having fulfilling, lasting relationships. She uses her own experience with stigma and harmful psychiatric practices to inform her prize-winning research on mental health ethics.


The Collected Schizophrenias by Esmé Weijun Wang

Esmé Weijun Wang’s collection of essays provides a sense of comfort to people with the diagnosis, while demonstrating to the general reader that people with schizophrenia can, in fact, be high-functioning, artistically and intellectually capable. Despite having schizoaffective disorder, Wang graduated from Stanford University and received her MFA from University of Michigan. Her debut novel, The Border of Paradise, won her notice from Granta, who subsequently listed her as one of their Best Young American novelists. Wang’s fear of incompetence is reflected in her essay on Francesca Woodman, the brilliant young photographer who killed herself when she was just twenty-two. Wang wonders what makes promising young artists break, and whether something in her own brain might shift, making her susceptible to a similar fate. A former fashion blogger, Wang is sure to differentiate herself from the visibly insane by donning red lipstick and designer clothes. Somewhat ironically, Wang finds solidarity in her diagnosis, schizoaffective, which points to a lineage of people who have suffered from schizophrenia. However, she is careful to analyze the diagnostic manual (DSM) from multiple angles, including the lens that views the DSM as a social construct. Her multifaceted view of diagnoses provides solidarity for people with schizophrenia while offering them freedom of the DSM’s collateral damage: stigma. Wang’s essay collection seeks to broaden the discourse of personal narratives of people with schizophrenia, and, in doing so, it expands readers’ views of what the life of a person with schizophrenia can look like. 


Divided Minds by Carolyn S. Spiro and Pamela Spiro Wagner

This combined memoir is composed of Pamela and her twin sister Carolyn’s memories that revolve around Pamela’s journey with schizophrenia. Despite developing schizophrenia, Pamela overshadows her twin sister: she is stronger academically and artistically, facts which result in Carolyn’s jealous resentment. When Pamela is in the sixth grade, following JFK’s assassination, she first hears voices that blame her for the murder of the late president. After graduating high school, Pamela and Carolyn both attend Brown University. The social and academic pressures increase and Pamela, plagued by an increase in hallucinations, is unable to function. She wallows in her room, thinking people are plotting against her. Her lifeline, ironically, is her twin sister, who is ambivalent about Pamela’s deterioration. Carolyn fears that she, possessing the same genes as Pamela, will begin to develop schizophrenia as her sister did. However, regardless of Pamela’s numerous hospitalizations, her illness does not ultimately impact her brilliance. She graduates college magna cum laude and goes on to publish award-winning poetry and articles. On such article is for a major newspaper that advocates for equal insurance coverage for people with mental illnesses. Also, Carolyn, at first stumped and afraid of Pamela’s schizophrenia, comes to be inspired by her sister’s ability to persevere and becomes a licensed psychiatrist. Divided Minds is a crucial memoir because it demonstrates that mental illness and giftedness often cooccur. Also, it illustrates a case of how misunderstanding mental illness can be remedied with more information. Carolyn judged Pamela initially, but with the proper education, Carolyn’s opinion shifted so much so that she wanted to work with people who struggled like her sister.


Image: Iñaki del Olmo/Unsplash

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