Strange Bedfellows? Mental Illness and the Novel

S.A. Jones ignored her creative writing teacher’s advice to never write about mental illness in a novel … but has spent a lot of time wrestling with the question of whether mental illness and the novel can do each other justice. And how do you write about a form of mental illness that defies the beginning, middle and end that the novel demands?

Image by Benjamin Watson, Flickr.

It is February 2011 and I am stuck. Comprehensively, wickedly stuck. The manuscript that I have pummelled, vivisected and re-wired refuses to assume an orderly shape so, in desperation, I enrol in the Advanced Year of the Novel course under the tutelage of the redoubtable Andrea Goldsmith. It is our first session and Andrea, in her magnificently peremptory way, dispenses some advice: ‘Be cautious of using the first person for an entire novel. And don’t write about mental illness. Ever’.

I look down at my opening paragraph:

‘My name is Isabelle, and I have decided to die’.

First person. Mental illness. Two strikes and I am out.

Fast forward three years and that troublesome manuscript – Isabelle of the Moon and Stars - is finally out there. A real book. I took Andrea’s advice regarding point of view but stuck with the mental illness theme. I’ve spent a lot of time wrestling with how, or if, mental illness and the novel can do each other justice. ‘Mental illness’ is a broad church, covering everything from bi-polar to schizophrenia to delusion to anxiety to obsessive compulsion. It is almost easier to say what it is not (normal, apparently) than what it is.

The tension between ‘normal’ and ‘aberrant’ has obvious thematic attractions for writers, driven as they are to look with a critical eye at what passes for unremarkable or ‘natural’. Who can forget the protagonist in Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper, pawing over the walls; her ‘madness’ a perfectly rational response to the restrictions and repressions of ‘being female’ in Victorian England? Or Bertha Mason, an archetype of suppressed female sexuality, bursting out of Thornfield Hall in a halo of flames and fury in Jane Eyre?

Books set against an institutional backdrop can problematise the normal/abnormal construct particularly well. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Girl, Interrupted both suggest that the arbiters of health – doctors, nurses, administrators – can, in their despotism and omnipotence, be as deluded and certainly crueller than the patients they are charged with curing. It’s a trope I played with (and I use ‘played’ quite deliberately) in Isabelle. Isabelle’s ‘madness’ comes complete with convenient labels. But what of Jack, her boss, who throws himself with gusto at whatever management fad is in favour that week? Who glances at his management texts for comfort and exhorts his team to get behind the strategy du jour – P3 (People! Performance! Planning!).

Isn’t it ‘mad’ that such nonsense is not only taken seriously, but as evidence of competence? And what of Evan, Isabelle’s best friend who had a religious experience as a grieving child that now drives his sexuality and decision-making as an adult? Is that ‘mad’?

But if the novel as a form can effectively explore dualities like mad and sane, unhinged and rational; there was one limitation I kept butting my head against during the writing process. Isabelle’s particular malady is hyperthymic depression and anxiety disorder. If you are (blessedly, mercifully) ignorant about what this means, let me give you a primer. You function well for fairly long periods of time then there comes a crash. Inexplicable. Total. Remorseless. My heroine, Isabelle, calls it The Black Place.

There are many dread things about The Black Place: the physical pain of the attacks, the constant fear of the next haunting, the vicious tussle to keep her purchase on her body.

But the worst thing, absolutely the worst thing is how memory-less it is. Once in possession there is no agency, no goodness, no hope and no memory of what it is to be anything other than The Black Place. No matter how many times Isabelle suffers the experience, in the moment of it, it is impossible to recollect that it has happened before and that it passes. That there are good days on the other side.

Isabelle’s malady is characterised by repetition. By wearying, haunting sameness. But fiction needs to move. It needs light and shade, conflict and change to push it along. This was my central creative problem: how to honour the truth of the experience but shoe-horn it into the conventions of the novel?

I began to wonder if the particular strain of mental illness I was working with would always be best served by poetry: windows into physical and emotional states sufficiently brief and self-contained to stave off reader boredom. I kept returning to Sylvia Plath’s Ariel poems and to Wilfred Owen’s snapshots of shattered minds and bodies and wondering if I was working in the wrong genre. Or in the right genre but with the wrong illness.

It is surely no accident that among the successful novels about mental illness are the ones where the maladies generate their own drama. (Let me pause here. I am in no way suggesting that any particular mental illness is more or less ‘dramatic’ than any other. I speak of drama here as it relates to the novel as a form). The memoirs Running with Scissors, Madness: a Memoir and Touched with Fire take psychosis and mania as their subject. And there are novels that explore breakdown: the collapse under pressure of an unsteady personality edifice and its rebirth. It’s a conceit used in novels by Wally Lamb, Sylvia Plath, Maggie O’Farrell and others; the fault-line in the ‘old’ personality often caused by a trauma. I also used this device in my first novel, Red Dress Walking. It aligns neatly with the genre demands of the novel: inciting force, conflict, climax and denouement or – if you prefer – beginning, middle and end.

But what to do with the malady that just won’t change? That has neither the mystery of an onset story nor the ‘glamour’ of a breakdown? That just is. How to write about the everyday heroism of people who face down their own black place and get out of bed and make it into work and keep friendships going and refuse suicide as an option day after day after day after day. Can the novel do that?

Crafting an ending for Isabelle was particularly problematic. Endings demand that the loose ends are tied up and some closure is achieved. I often find endings the least satisfying part of a novel precisely because the form demands a resolution rarely achieved in life and certainly not with an illness that, while it may be treatable, is not ‘soluble’ (I confess to a particular antipathy for the suggestion in some books and films about mental illness that the afflicted are ‘cured’ by love).

I solved my dilemma by more or less hitching the plot to the cycle of the illness. In doing so, I hope to suggest that the cycle of the illness itself provides infinite beginnings, middles and ends.

Portrait of S.A. Jones

Related posts