For the second part of this two part series I am going discuss modern books about mental illness. The last post involved mental illness in an earlier time, the quintessential mental illness novels for the mid century, but today is about conceptualization and treatment of illness in today’s world.
A word on treatment today versus then: I do not claim that we have everything figured out for the mentally ill, but at least there are no longer hospitals where people who are annoying but really do not belong there get dumped. Even the people who struggle too much on the outside to be there are constantly being considered for how they can get there, and halfway houses with trained staff are there for people who need to work on getting back out. Electric shock is only used for treatment resistant depression with full consent from the patient. Some people swear by a few treatments of EST to keep them feeling right. And there are no more lobotomies, thank the good lord, and parents are not being blamed for autism and schizophrenia (although the original story of how parents got blamed for autism was misinterpreted. Theorists believed that autism may be genetic, which it is, and not that autistic parents create autism in a child that was not there before).
The importance of these books lies in their frank discussion of the thoughts and feelings that are a part of the illness. They do not try to romanticize or make the illness different than it really is, rather, they do their best to help the reader understand their worlds.
Challenger Deep, Neal Shusterman
I wish this book was available back in the early 90’s when I could have read it. The nonfiction books I did find on mental illness listed symptoms and had weird pictures of hollow eyed women in the shower with swimsuits and life vests on. It did not help my thirteen year old brain slow down and consider what life must be like and what symptoms must be like for these people. Challenger Deep would have made all the difference to me back then in my understanding. I am glad it has earned all the attention that it has (National Book Award Winner!) to get it into the hands of more teens who want to know about abnormal psychology and what it is like to be a patient.
I do agree with some reviews that this book takes a little to get into. For me it was because the alternate illness world of the sea voyage was hard to initially make sense of, but it does weave into the other narrative, Caden with his family and friends and school, and those relationships slowly change as Caden is changing. There are other digressions into the world of the illness in the other books I posted on last week, so slipping in and out of those narratives is not an uncommon way to portray the illness. And they are like the illness in real life in that way: you start off thinking that this is something happening in the real world, and then as you go you find something is off. I liked how Kesey does this when his narrator talks about the great machine in the walls, the great Combine.
Once the two narratives started to gel in my mind, I plowed through it. The writing is sharp and poignant and makes mention of things in life we experience but often don’t give a second though to.
Caden is much more reachable and relatable than the characters in the books from last week’s post. He takes place in the modern world, he is a regular teenager before everything hits, he is only in the hospital until he stabilizes on medication and he can be sent home to parents who are just as unsure as he is. The book talks about how the family changes the way they interact with him in the hospital and after, how he is Caden still in some ways, but in others is a changed person. I love YA that tackles difficult topics and helps teens to build empathy into misunderstood pieces of life.
Head Full of Ghosts, Paul Tremblay
This one was a little less clear cut mental illness. It addresses the age old question of what is mental illness and what makes it not a spiritual explanation, like possession? A modern family’s eldest daughter starts acting strange and it is more in line with the the popularized forms of demon possession. There are some suggestions of schizophrenia, like when the older sister admits to hearing voices and having to listen to music to drown them out, but often she claims that she is faking and making it up in order to save the family. That she is ‘going along’ with her father’s concern that she is possessed. This is in keeping with some family therapy theories where there is one member responsible for manifesting the issues in the family dynamic.
It is told from the perspective of the younger daughter, Merry, who is eight years old at the time that her sister falls ill and the family agrees to allow a reality show to be made due to financial straits. She tells what she remembers as well as writing a blog as an adult about the show where she talks about its similarities to the portrayal of possession in other movies and books and shows, claiming that it was all fabricated, especially the pieces in which she had direct involvement. The unreliable narrator is another layer to this, especially with the ending. We don’t know how it really gets to end up the way it does. Which I won’t say because I won’t spoil it.
The eldest daughter does short stints in the hospital, she takes medications, she does not get shock therapy or a lobotomy, no one talks about her marriage prospects or are concerned with her fitting into the larger society. She struggles to attend school like a typical kid, she has evidence of self harm in parts, and the whole time the reader is wondering if this is about illness or possession, or maybe both.
I blasted through this book in a short time, it was that quick and readable.
Both of these books feature troubled teens battling illness in today’s world. I am thankful for more choices and more freedom to choose, and that there is a constant effort to integrate and for the world to accommodate them.
And thus concludes my two part blog piece on mental illness then and now.
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