Mental Traveler

LARB presents an excerpt from W. J. T. Mitchell's "Mental Traveler: A Father, a Son, and a Journey Through Schizophrenia."

By W. J. T. MitchellSeptember 23, 2020

Mental Traveler

THE FOLLOWING IS an excerpt from W. J. T. Mitchell’s Mental Traveler: A Father, a Son, and a Journey Through Schizophrenia, a memoir about Mitchell’s son Gabriel, who struggled with schizophrenia for 20 years until his suicide at age 38. The excerpt makes reference to Carmen, Gabriel’s sister, a filmmaker based in Los Angeles, who is currently at work on a film about her brother, shot through the lens of his own film footage and artwork. Mental Traveler was published by The University of Chicago Press in September.


One of the common features of schizophrenia in gifted individuals is a belief that the illness can be conquered with strength of will. The portrayal of the mathematician John Nash in the film A Beautiful Mind exemplifies this notion, treating Nash’s “recovery” from madness as a simple matter of deciding not to believe in the reality of his own hallucinations. He tells his imaginary friends to go away, and they fade into the background. A more nuanced account is provided by Elyn Saks in her autobiography, The Center Cannot Hold. The most important delusion that Saks has to overcome is her feeling that she can simply reason her way out of her condition: “I thought that if I could figure it out, I could conquer it. My problem was not that I was crazy; it was that I was weak.”

It is the oldest cliché of psychology. Denial that one has a problem is the first and hardest problem to overcome. Like the Protestant doctrine of “conviction of sin,” the acknowledgment of one’s own sinfulness and need for grace, the acceptance of a diagnosis or, at a minimum, the acceptance that one needs a diagnosis, that there is a problem in one’s life that cannot be wished or willed away, is a precondition for successful treatment. And “success” can be a very complex matter, since the idea of normality and mental health is at least as vague and contradictory as the idea of madness. In the case of schizophrenia, sometimes the best notion of success is to accept one’s condition as incurable but treatable and survivable. When Saks accepted that she would need to be continuously alert to stress, vigilant to spotting warning signs and situations (e.g., the moment of changing therapists), her life became a matter of managing schizophrenia rather than of overcoming it. When she understood that the need for medication would probably never go away, she was well on the road to what would count as a successful life. When Aby Warburg, the German historian of art and culture, emerged from his five-year confinement in a mental hospital, he defined his own condition as that of a “revenant” or ghost, an “incurable” who had found a way back into the world for an afterlife. When Judge Schreber, the mad jurist who served as the most famous exemplar of schizophrenia in modern Europe, fought to be released from his confinement, it is his writing and legal reasoning that does the trick; his elaborate system of delusions survived intact and became the mythic core for the most famous first-person account of madness in the 20th century.

Gabriel was too strong for his own good. His therapists all testified to his ability to “present well,” as the jargon puts it. He did not fit the stereotypical image of schizophrenia as withdrawn, angry, delusional, obsessive, and all-around difficult. He saved that mostly for us. His personal grooming was excellent. He defied the tendency of medications to induce obesity by working out energetically, cycling, skateboarding, stair climbing, and going to the gym. His apartment was generally quite neat, with books, tapes, and DVDs arranged logically. His desk was carefully ordered with drafting tools and materials ready to hand. Of course, the whole space always reeked of tobacco, the most widely used self-medication for schizophrenia.

Being a social butterfly is not part of the stereotype of schizophrenia. At art openings, house parties, and receptions, Gabe would work the room like a skilled politician, meeting new people and engaging them in conversation and handing out his business cards. There was not a trace of cynicism or opportunism in this behavior. Live encounters with the outer faces and voices of others helped to push away the destructive inner voices that plagued him. In spite of his empathetic, sociable nature, however, he felt terribly alone in the world and complained bitterly when people failed to show up for appointments or canceled at the last minute. Probably they were oblivious to the hurt they were inflicting. After his death, scores of people came forward and testified about memorable encounters with him in which they glimpsed his empathy and sensitivity (the most frequent adjectives that come up in these anecdotes are “sweetness,” “enthusiasm,” “brilliance,” and “openness”). One of his dear friends who suffered from depression remarked about a day with him: “Our conversation made a before and after of that day for me. Afterward, we determined that our respective insurance companies should pay us for providing each other with therapy, and we also determined that I needed to get dance shoes.” He could segue from small talk to the meaning of life without missing a beat.

Many people who knew Gabe were completely unaware that he had a mental illness, and his darkest episodes were mostly confined to intimate family situations, where his anger and despair and grandiosity could flourish openly. But even within the family, he tended to conceal the depth of his suffering. When I asked about how he was feeling, I was generally rebuffed with the retort “How are you feeling?” When I would ask if he was having nightmares, he would often turn the question aside or, conversely, assert that they were stronger than ever, and then to go on to describe nightly dreams of being torn apart and devoured by insects, visions worthy of Bosch’s lurid portrayals of the torments of hell.

I think he was engaged in a double defense mechanism: defending himself against having to open up the Pandora’s box full of demons that were plaguing him, while also defending us against the intensity of his pain and reassuring us that all was well. He consistently refused to engage in serious talk therapy, even after he had come reluctantly to accept the need for medication. He preferred the passive “Rogerian” style of therapy, in which he could filibuster for the entire hour without being challenged by the therapist, whose only role was to periodically murmur “mm-hmm.” And he expressed mixed feelings about this technique, sometimes mocking it quite savagely by imitating the bland clichés of professional “concern” (“And how are you feeling today?” “And how did you feel about that?”). At other times, he was willing to admit that it might be of limited benefit, and he had no problem with talking about himself. When he was asked if he ever had thoughts about suicide, he emphatically denied it, assuring us and his doctors that he would never do anything like that.

At the same time, his screenplays were projecting images of himself both as a superhero capable of amazing feats of intellectual and physical strength, and as the victim of dark forces, betrayal, and persecution. In one screenplay, The Politics of Dreams, he divided the character of his alter egos in two. On one side is Abby, a famous Hollywood director and actor who is about to receive an Academy Award for lifetime achievement; at the same time, he is completing his magnum opus, Quantum Geometrics: A Unified Physics of Peace. On the other is George, a failed screenwriter who is “a paranoid, delusional psychotic” and a drug fiend. George hates Abby for his success and for his bad taste in films. He is outraged that Abby regards Casablanca as a better film than Citizen Kane. Abby represents the “industrial” model of cinema as mass culture, while George is portrayed as the frustrated auteur who identifies with Orson Welles. If Abby is a projection of Gabe’s grandiose ambitions, George is a portrayal of his actual suffering, beset by hideous nightmares and voices urging him to commit suicide. George tries to assassinate Abby as he walks the red carpet at the Oscars, succeeding in leaving Abby in a coma.

The interesting plot twist in The Politics of Dreams occurs when Abby awakens from his coma, decides to forgive his assassin, and invites him to spend time with him in his hospital room. George is brought in wearing a straitjacket, and together they watch a retrospective of all the films in Abby’s long career. The films comprise every genre known to Hollywood — Western, science fiction, noir, psychological thriller, courtroom drama, boxing, dinosaurs, crime procedural, war, even a picaresque biker film modeled on Easy Rider. Every film has a “Hollywood ending,” with Abby as a cowboy, astronaut, detective, scientist, or Christ figure who always gets the girl and saves the world. George is completely contemptuous of Abby’s success, insisting that these formulaic films are trashy productions for the commercial culture industry. He then reveals that he himself is a screenwriter — “My scripts are about real things, not some dream factory” — and gets a lecture from Abby on how to pander to audiences to have a successful film career.

While this retrospective is unfolding, George is busy wriggling his way out of his straitjacket so that he can finish Abby off. He frees himself, strangles Abby (who will later be resuscitated, of course, in Hollywood-ending style), and escapes from the hospital, cutting off his own legs to free himself from his shackles. After a long, legless crawl through sewers, George winds up dead in a crack house and is taken to the morgue. But there, a small miracle occurs: a “mysterious house fly crawls out from George’s hair,” an escape hatch opens in the middle of George’s lifeless brow, and a miniature version of George crawls out and mounts the fly, which takes off like “a little Pegasus” to fly back to Abby. George becomes Abby’s invisible companion, riding on his shoulder like a familiar spirit or incubus. The screenplay ends with Abby delivering a eulogy at George’s graveside, as the fly takes off with the miniature George “riding like a cowboy … directly into an electric bug zapper,” where they are “fried instantly.”

I read now about Abby and his evil alter ego, George, and I peer cautiously at Gabe’s delusions of grandeur and the actuality of his suffering — which, in a sense, fought each other to a draw. It is as if Gabe turned the psychoanalytic dialogue into a debate about cinema, rendered as cinema — or at least as screenplay. The talking cure becomes the screenwriter’s dilemma, providing illusions for the masses, or unwelcome and unmarketable glimpses of the realities that lead the screenwriter into the grave. Gabe and I once discussed the idea of an entire seminar on “back lot” films (the Coen Brothers’ Barton Fink and Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard were among our favorites). The Politics of Dreams, which incorporates all the genres of cinema, is itself meta-cinema.

When Gabe would visit Carmen in Los Angeles, he would mingle with her circle of friends, including actors, directors, technical people, and, of course, screenwriters. Carmen was writing and acting in plays herself, while holding down a day job at the Writers Guild. As in the academic world, where everyone has his or her book project, in Hollywood, nearly everyone has a script tucked under their arm. The conversation inevitably turns to the question of how one can “take a meeting” with an insider who will open the door to a contract and the ensuing fame and fortune. It is a political field of dreams in which delusions of grandeur are almost completely normal. Carmen noted that Gabe’s fantasies fit right into the collective psychosis of aspiring workers in the dream industry.

Gabriel’s last words to me on the phone the day of his death were an accusation: “You have never read my screenplays.” Of course, I instantly denied this, but there was a terrible, haunting truth to the charge. I think I was incapable of reading his scripts the way I do now, now that they are posthumous records of his struggle. Then I was reading them as a father and caregiver in relation to the ongoing life of my son. Now I read them in a way that I find much more difficult to classify. Is it an act of mourning, of penance for failing to give him the reading he needed when he was alive? Or am I now free to “do a reading” of the sort that I do as a scholar, linking them to other cases of visionary testimony offered by gifted schizophrenics? Am I reading them to understand him, or his illness? Or in search of something well beyond illness?

When Gabe showed me The Politics of Dreams, I was, of course, disturbed by the terrifying figure of George and annoyed by the grandiose projection of Abby the Great, both expressing aspects of Gabe’s self-image — or perhaps a caricature of his successful father. I suppose I gave the screenplay a merely symptomatic reading, which in a way is not to read at all but to know beforehand what a text means, to search it for confirmation of a diagnosis — what Kenneth Koch used to call “being the dermatologist at the birthday party,” when he admonished us against reading poems this way. I think we all fight this impulse as readers. Most perplexing is the fact that reading someone’s writing or listening to them speak “as symptomatic” can be deeply disrespectful, like the incompetent psychoanalyst who tells a patient, “That is just your psychotic grandiosity talking.” The worst thing one can say to someone having a psychotic break is “You are having a psychotic break.” Of course, since it may also be the only true thing that it is possible to say, silence, lying, and evasion are what one usually resorts to. Beyond that, a symptomatic reading strikes me as too quick to impose closure and apply labels; for example, this is (nothing but) a symptom of schizophrenia. Where is the line between symptom and sympathy? I didn’t know then, and I don’t know now.

And of course there were questions about the viability of Gabe’s scripts as steps toward a career as a screenwriter. I cringe to recall how evasive I had to be when he insisted that I endorse and transmit his scripts to my old friend Henry Louis “Skip” Gates Jr. (Skip is known to the world as the Harvard professor who directs the television series Finding Your Roots, but he also appears as a prominent character in Gabe’s script for The Politics of Dreams, playing Abby’s best friend and director.) Skip wrote Gabe an encouraging letter, which he cherished. But Gabe became obsessed with the idea that Skip and I could get Spike Lee to “take a meeting” that would lead to fame and fortune. Anyone who has spent time in Hollywood knows that the idea of “taking a meeting” with an influential player is the Holy Grail of “the industry.” Skip tried to let Gabe down easy by telling him, “Gabe, even I can’t get Spike to return my calls.” He urged Gabe to continue his education in filmmaking and prepare himself to be ready when his moment would come.

I did not get off so easily. I had met Lee briefly in the fall of 2000, when we were on a panel together to discuss the recent release of his film Bamboozled. So of course Gabe expected me to call the great director and arrange a meeting. Why wasn’t I doing it? Why was I blocking his career when, as his father, I should have been helping him achieve his hopes and dreams?

Nevertheless, Gabe and I could share our love for Lee’s film, and we watched Bamboozled together many times. He immediately added it to his list of films about screenwriters — in this case, a film about a television writer who produces the script for a “New Millennium Minstrel Show” that violates every racial taboo known to American culture. Is the screenwriter, Pierre Delacroix, a victim of the “idiot box” that corrupts his talent? Is he a yuppie sellout, an “Oreo” (black on the outside, white on the inside) who will do anything to preserve his cushy lifestyle and his daily Pilates classes? Or is he going insane, his immersion in the racist stereotypes of “Sambo Art” turning into a psychosis that makes the mechanical dolls of Aunt Jemima and Stepin Fetchit come alive? Gabe lived inside this film and took me there with him. And he brought Spike and Skip into supporting roles in his own fantasy world of a brilliant Hollywood career.

Now I try to read his scripts differently, in a way that can only happen when the text is the testimony of someone who has crossed the threshold into madness and death, and left a compelling story about it, along with an unfinished project of understanding. I can no longer bear the symptomatic readings, which confidently label these writings as expressions of this or that syndrome. Who gives a damn whether they are the results of a bipolar disorder or schizophrenia? Like Elyn Saks, Aby Warburg, and William Blake, Gabe lived on the border of a world that most of us know only fleetingly — a world of suffering and shattering both relieved and exacerbated by grandiose fantasies, expressed by a fierce determination to put those fantasies to work and build a world out of the ruins. He was a mental traveler.


Reprinted with permission from Mental Traveler: A Father, a Son, and a Journey through Schizophrenia by W. J. T. Mitchell, published by the University of Chicago Press.© 2020 by the University of Chicago. All rights reserved.


W. J. T. Mitchell is the Gaylord Donnelley Distinguished Service Professor of English and Art History at the University of Chicago and editor of Critical Inquiry.

LARB Contributor

W. J. T. Mitchell is Gaylord Donnelley Distinguished Service Professor of English and Art History at the University of Chicago. He was the editor of Critical Inquiry from 1978 to 2020, and is the author of Image Science: Iconology, Media Aesthetics, and Visual Culture, published by Chicago University Press in 2015.


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