Reviewed by Amelia Martin
The Collected Schizophrenias
by Esmé Weijun Wang
Paperback: 224 pages,ISBN-13: 978-1555978273, Feb 2019
“It is disconcerting for anyone to be told that her brain is being damaged by an uncontrollable illness. It might have been especially disconcerting to me because my brain has been one of my more valuable assets since childhood” (p. 19).
This begins The Collected Schizophrenias, Esmé Weijun Wang’s remarkable collection of essays about her own experience with the illness, the experiences of others, a “pathology of the possessed” (the partial title of one essay), and, ultimately an inside out, outside in, and impressively scientifically researched study of schizophrenia itself.
Wang’s genius partly comes from her ability to write about her illness with seemingly perfect clarity, as the sufferer and the scientist. The book is a testament to her brain—a brain working so well that it can so effectively describe the torment it causes her. Especially since, as Wang reminds us, schizophrenia is a disease of “loosening of associations,” in which the mind is working so hard within the person—against the person—to rid itself of itself.
The deterioration of mental health is often paired with some sort of metaphor involving darkness. “Darkness descending,” “entering a dark period,” “Darkness Visible.” In these images, the sufferer’s ill mind is leading her from a lighter place of mental health to a darker one of mental illness. Schizophrenia, Wang tells us, is not a walk into the darkness. It is not the unwelcome early sunset during a straight, flat walk to CVS that is evoked by popular tropes. After all, this “darkness” might be awful, but it is still an arrival, still linear. It still makes sense, somehow, and if the sufferer was given pen and paper, the crescendo of symptoms could probably be mapped into a homemade timeline. I felt fine; I felt worse; I felt bad; I felt awful. Schizophrenia is all elliptical nightmares. It is being forced to pedal a stationary bicycle, where the pedals are made of empty air, pedaling darkness over darkness over darkness, not knowing if it is dark, not knowing where you are, not knowing.
I do not know much about schizophrenia, but Wang evokes the experience powerfully enough for me to imagine the hell of it, to the extent that a person who has not experienced such a hell can imagine it.
I do not know much about Wang’s mental illness, but I would like to think that I have some familiarity with my own, although it always seems to sneak into the picture in ways that surprise me. At this point, twenty years after my first psychiatric diagnosis, I am often familiar with my emotions, can sometimes label them, and can occasionally intercept them. It started out frenetic—age seven, clinging and screaming and banging—and walked me backwards through some kind self-erasing circle, into a place of quiet numbness, where I have to learn how to notice and respond to the basic instincts of human existence all over again. I am taught how to breathe, how to recognize hunger and feed myself. I am being guided on how to stay alive, because it is not a given that I will.
For a while, Esmé Weijun Wang thought that she was dead. In the essay “Perdition Days,” she writes about her experience with Cotard’s syndrome, where she believed that she had died, and was trapped with cruel, hellish phantoms of the afterlife, disguised as the people she loved. She stopped eating, stopped functioning. When her husband tried to convince her that she wasn’t dead, she couldn’t believe him. She had died. She was dead. That she came back to life to write this book is no less than a triumph.
Just as it a testament to her amazing courage, so is Wang’s chronicle of her own unimaginable suffering armored by intellect. I would have liked to see Wang remove this armor. But asking her to do this is asking her to rid herself of her pride, of her lifeblood. I can talk about my illness like someone who has gone to Yale and Stanford, this book seems to say. Esmé Weijun Wang might experience a “loosening of associations,” but she is writing some of the tightest, most intelligent prose of American essayists today. And—after all—a “loosening of associations” is not a book that sells, not a book that reclaims the personhood of a disease whose sufferers are often not seen as people by the outside world, or, often, by the inside world of their friends and family (one of the most affecting essays in the collection was one about involuntary commitment—Wang is against it.)
How could anyone ask a writer to write “more crazy”? I feel ashamed for wanting this, but it also isn’t exactly what I want. What I want is for her to lean into the crazy a little more in her writing, but at the same time, I know that she can’t.
So, what am I asking?
I would like to read a story of someone whose intelligence has been compromised by mental illness, or maybe not, or maybe it is impossible to tell. I would like to read about the loss of identity that happens when mental illness bleeds into intellect and intellect bleeds into mental illness—the feeling of complete confusion that comes with not knowing which is which. I would like to see a narrative about mental illness that is written from that place of complete stuck-ness. It might not be as smart as Wang’s book, it might show signs of deterioration that the writer herself cannot see. But it will be a call from somewhere where the brain and mind are holding on to each other for dear life, changing each other, clinging to each other, even as they fall apart.
About the reviewer: Amelia Martin is a writer, editor, and helper-for-hire. She is a graduate of Sarah Lawrence College, where her short story was awarded the 2013 Nancy Lynn Schwartz Prize for Fiction.