FEBRUARY 5, 2019
IF THERE EXISTS a mental-illness diagnosis as scary as the physical-illness diagnosis of cancer, schizophrenia may be it. To the general public, it’s a monolith of a condition: the one where you hear voices in your head and talk to people who aren’t there. That Beautiful Mind guy had it, and he invented Ed Harris completely, remember? But the words and stories of those who live with schizoaffective disorder offer proof that it’s a spectrum illness, which manifests with great variety and defies stereotype. And though it’s a serious diagnosis, many of those afflicted insist that they are not doomed.
The classic schizophrenia memoirs include The Quiet Room: A Journey Out of the Torment of Madness (1994), by Lori Schiller and Amanda Bennett, and The Center Cannot Hold: My Journey Through Madness (2007), by Elyn R. Saks. Both books are frightening. Schiller’s illness manifested as voices shouting at her relentlessly to kill herself, and the treatment she was given early in her illness was cruel and unhelpful. Her account is perforated by memory loss because of trauma and electroconvulsive therapy. Saks’s book is a story of extraordinary willpower; rather than seek help, she hid her debilitating symptoms almost entirely while racking up degrees and honors in the legal and medical fields. Her writing voice is a little nerdy, but her achievements, which include a MacArthur “genius” grant, are extraordinary.
Esmé Weijun Wang’s new book of essays, The Collected Schizophrenias, which won the Graywolf Press Nonfiction Prize and a Whiting Award, warrants much of the hype and anticipation surrounding it. A Granta-anointed Best Young American Novelist for The Border of Paradise (2016), Wang is a highly articulate and graceful essayist, and her insights, in both the clinical and general senses, are exceptional.
Wang’s book isn’t much like the other two. The trajectory of schizoaffective disorder, in its progression, regression, detours, and stubbornness, is a common, looping thread among them, but the way the illness manifests in the three writers is profoundly different. Wang’s voices aren’t much like Schiller’s, and her delusional convictions (for example, that she is dead — also known as the Cotard delusion) are much more unusual. Saks is paranoid and manic while Wang leans to catatonia. Wang’s book is less alarming than the other two, in part because her voice is so measured and intelligent. The fact is, the three women have different illnesses, even though their umbrella diagnosis is the same — schizoaffective disorder varies as much as its patients do.
In addition, while Schiller was largely swallowed by her illness and Saks threw herself passionately into her career, Wang gives the impression of having lived many lives. She started on the Ivy League track, attending Yale (the alma mater of Saks, as well), which was exceedingly unhelpful in managing her burgeoning illness, and then Stanford, which was closer to her family. She was a fashion blogger early in her adult life, and her knowledge of designers and aesthetics is likely to bewilder the average reader. One of the essays is about disguising herself as high-functioning by using visual markers of wellness: beautiful clothes and makeup from Chanel and Tom Ford. Her survival methods are necessarily elastic:
My makeup routine is minimal and consistent. I can dress and daub when psychotic and when not psychotic. I do it with zeal when manic. If I’m depressed, I skip everything but the lipstick. If I skip the lipstick, that means I haven’t even made it to the bathroom mirror.
A sexual assault lies beneath Wang’s daily experience for years, until her illness triggers PTSD, which complicates her treatment plan further. Then, after her physical health declines mysteriously and precipitously, she is diagnosed with late-stage Lyme disease.
Bookstore shelves are crammed with PTSD memoirs, Ivy League reminiscences, fashion world tell-alls, sexual-assault survival stories, and chronicles of fighting against debilitating illness — Wang’s friend Porochista Khakpour even wrote an entire book, Sick, about living with late-stage Lyme disease — but Wang has been inside all of these identities, lived all of these selves and more. Her perspective in The Collected Schizophrenias is encyclopedic and prismatic even without taking into account how her primary mental illness may have fractured her identity.
Wang asks rare, necessary questions about her condition: “What happens if I see my disordered mind as a fundamental part of who I am? It has, in fact, shaped the way I experience life.”
She’s mildly arguing against “person-first language” that “suggests that there is a person in there somewhere without the delusions and the rambling and the catatonia”:
There might be something comforting about the notion that there is, deep down, an impeccable self without disorder, and that if I try hard enough, I can reach that unblemished self. But there may be no impeccable self to reach, and if I continue to struggle toward one, I might go mad in the pursuit.
She writes with clarity about how it feels when a psychotic episode descends upon her, an experience only a fraction of us will ever have. The entire passage, from “Reality, Onscreen,” is two and a half pages of captivating prose, but the conclusion is most gripping:
Something’s wrong; then it is completely wrong […] The moment of shifting from one phase to the other is usually sharp and clear; I turn my head and in a single moment realize that my coworkers have been replaced by robots, or glance at my sewing table as the thought settles over me, fine and gray as soot, that I am dead. In this way I have become, and have remained, delusional for months at a time […] What’s true is whatever I believe, although I know enough to parrot back what I know is supposed to be true: these are real people and not robots; I am alive, not dead. The idea of “believing” something turns porous as I repeat the tenets of reality like a good girl.
These essays are mesmerizing and at times bittersweet — not unlike The Border of Paradise, which is a horrifying family drama written in balletic prose. In other ways, the two books don’t feel very similar, but that’s a mark of Wang’s craftsmanship. Her novel is warmer, with shifting perspectives that dwell on human moments, where her essays are even and controlled. Whenever they feel too icily flawless, though, Wang reveals her sense of humor. When a stranger looks her up and down as she’s in a delusional (but functioning) state, she quips, “Yes, I thought, our eyes meeting, you may think I’m hot, but I’m also a rotting corpse. Sucks to be you, sir.”
Often collections like this gather essays either too independent from one another or too repetitive in their details to form a fully satisfying work. Wang’s book mostly avoids these problems, but it does have a sense of incompleteness, which derives, perhaps, from the sense that the author is leaving things out. It’s not a particularly juicy or grotesque book, and a jaded reader of sensational memoir may find this suspicious. Her book often feels like the equivalent of her makeup routine: she’s passing as a calm, informative writer with a sophisticated prose style when inside her head it’s chaos.
This is not to say it’s a dishonest book, but it does offer up Wang’s best and most beautiful self, for the most part, and only rarely shows her gibbering at the mirror or impassively giving away her possessions. Of course, that is no one’s business but Wang’s. She is not required to expose her interior horrors to the reading public just because other essayists and memoirists do. Besides, if the book seems incomplete, or unfinished, it’s because Wang’s life is, too. Not because her illnesses have lessened her — they certainly have not — but because she is continually evolving, and aware of it. The collection carries a sense of starting over, and over, and over, with each new diagnosis, each new psychotic episode, each new obstacle that Wang must cope with to survive and thrive. Her extraordinary precision as a writer helps her organize and describe the junk drawer of intention and failure and process and truth that is life.
The Collected Schizophrenias is a necessary addition to a relatively small body of literature, but it’s also, quite simply, a pleasure to read. The prose is so beautiful, and the recollection and description so vivid, that even if it were not mostly about an under-examined condition it would be easy to recommend. Esmé Weijun Wang is poised to become a major writer, and this is her origin story.
Read more LARB pieces related to mental health and illness here.