A collection of autobiographical essays on schizophrenia, which “shirks reality in favor of its own internal logic.”
In addition to a detailed history of the treatment of mental illness in America, informed by her time as a researcher at Stanford, Wang (The Border of Paradise, 2016) keenly investigates the lived experience of “the schizophrenias.” Covering a variety of issues—including the practice of involuntary committal and life in a psychiatric institution, the difficulties of navigating college with a mental disorder, the public discourse on suicide, the financial problems caused by a chronic illness and an uncaring insurance industry—the author consistently demonstrates her precise attunement to not only the stories buried in official statistics and dry historical sources, but also to the broader implications of her own personal experiences. Unfortunately, Wang’s prose is often clinical when it needs to be harrowing or affective when it needs to be precise, and the transition from the macro view to the micro is occasionally inelegant. What makes these essays worthwhile is their attention to both the broad historical and cultural implications of their subject matter and the personal, first-person perspective that is so often lost in historical accounts. The author is an adroit researcher and an exacting describer, but the two halves often fail to mesh effectively, as when she writes that “with chronic illness, life persists astride illness unless the illness spikes to acuity; at that point, surviving from one second to the next is the greatest ambition.” Such sentences attempt to swerve from direct exposition to personal reflection yet do not fully manage the transition, leaving a highly personal anecdote dressed in too-clinical description. Still, the book remains a necessary antidote to the often ignorant and fearmongering depictions of mental illness in popular culture.
Better integration of the two thematic halves and prose that was more lively and varied would have made the collection truly great, but even so it remains quite powerful and certainly useful for fellow sufferers.