It is unsurprising, given my own struggles, that I have always been intrigued by fictional representations of mental illness. As society-at-large attempts to redress some of the taboos surrounding psychological ailments, the publishing industry has been working overtime to fill the gaping chasm in accurate portrayals of mental illness. While there is still an incredible amount of work to be done – a fact that talking openly about my own experiences online has certainly brought home to me – we have undoubtedly come a some way from Jane Eyre‘s woman-in-the-attic syndrome. Where fiction is now outwardly celebrated and sold for attempts to reckon with the complexity of illnesses such as depression and anxiety, this recognition is an almost exclusively contemporary phenomenon.
Reflecting on the broader progress surrounding dialogue on mental illness, it’s not too surprising that literary trends would essentially parallel social norms. Where portrayals of psychosis served the gothicism of Charlotte Bronte’s work and Heathcliff’s vengeful sociopathy promoted the perverse romanticism of Wuthering Heights, early portrayals of imbalance met real-world understandings of mental illness as problematic and objectionable in the extreme. The dawn of the “insane asylum” accompanied the 1700s and a belief that those who exhibited signs of mental illness were best separated from society. The barbarism of these institutions is extremely well documented, with physical, sexual, and emotional abuse commonplace at the hands of both nurses and doctors. Through the mid-1900s, mentally ill patients were effective experiment subjects for a plethora of ‘treatments’ – including lobotomies, organ removal, shock therapy, and purposeful infection with malaria (for more on this, Talkspace has an excellent article on the history of mental health treatment). Given that mental illness has been historically viewed as a prohibited type of social deviance, it is little surprise that fictional representations of such ailments would prove incredibly lacking in both humanity and accuracy.
Yet, we must surely account for the challenges innate in writing appropriately about mental illness. Speaking even from one’s own first-hand experience, illnesses such as depression, bipolar disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are so complex in the subjective aspects of their experience that any account is unlikely to capture the fullness of a disorder’s many components. Writing without first-hand experience introduces an even greater layer of difficulty – as well as several questions about appropriateness – to the task of fictionalising mental illness. In her excellent article on the decision to write about bipolar from the position of observer, Sarah Faber unpicks the question ‘do I have the right to inhabit another’s mental illness in fiction?’ While the article itself argues on both sides of the debate, Faber rests on the conclusion of Virginia Woolf, who “…said that true creativity requires a kind of psychological androgyny that allows the various quotidian aspects of your selfhood to fall away and cease to be an obstacle to the creation of another voice, another life.” This is inherent to the process, and purpose, of writing fiction. Were we to expect that authors write solely from the benefit of personal experience, the profundity of our literary options would surely be significantly lacking – not to mention creating a complete absence of historical or fantasy fiction as popular genres.
This said, there is something inherently troubling here for those in the position of living mental illness as an everyday experience. Words and storytelling – albeit largely of the nonfiction variety – are my métier and I try to utilise the spaces that I have made for myself with a mind to embodying the voice that I wish I’d had access to when I first experienced symptoms of mental illness. While I have certainly never expected that my own experiences will reflect those of all my readers – even those diagnosed with the same illnesses – it is, for me, about occupying a gap filled with words spoken by others on my behalf. Herein lies the unavoidable issue with fictional accounts of mental illness written by those who have not experienced it – they necessarily co-opt the voices of those who suffer. In my previous life, I was a PhD student and lecturer on human rights. My specialisation was the nature of international justice as something formulated by the western world and forced onto cultures with little knowledge of or interest in justice as a conventional criminal trial. The whole purpose of this research was the emphasis that it placed on both the saviour complex of those who believe that they are speaking on behalf of voiceless victims (voiceless largely because their own space is being almost exclusively constructed by outside strangers) and the belief that those who suffer are ill-placed to articulate their own suffering. When dealing with mental illness, these arguments are at the forefront of questions around the portrayal of such disorders. In awarding the ability to portray mental illness to those who have never experienced it, we are suggesting that those who are mentally ill are somehow unequipped to talk for themselves. While first, second, and third hand fictionalisations of mental illness can certainly coexist, it is undoubtedly the case that shockingly few first-hand fictional accounts populate the literary world. Where the depiction of Asperger’s Syndrome in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time or the symptoms of bipolar that Sarah Faber aims to represent must be celebrated for centralising narratives of mental illness and neurobehavioural conditions, it is important to look at the spaces that such books occupy and the chasms in representation to which they point.
That fiction must allow space for representation of every aspect of the human experience is unarguable. To effectively prohibit writers to tap their own interests in the application of their unique narrative skill would be a incredible misstep – as well as a misunderstanding of what true representation requires. However, it is our job as readers to ask questions about the kind of representation that we are promoting through our purchases and our words. To take, for example, Mark Haddon’s work as a sign that the literary portrayals of mental illness are where they should be is to miss the publishing world’s failure to centralise authors with a first-hand experience of psychological disorders. Yet, there remains a pervasive and very obvious fear of the deviance from social norms that mental illness represents. Where we have become more comfortable discussing the behind-closed-doors symptoms of depression or anxiety (particularly where that anxiety looks like stress, in its most socially-acceptable form), illnesses such as bipolar and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) – as well as symptoms that include self harm, mania etc – receive little attention. In many respects, our willingness to look at the more ‘acceptable’ forms of mental illness simply serves to reinforce the taboos elsewhere. We can pat ourselves on the back for a job well done, engaging in some self-congratulation for our ability to face the confusing world of someone with depression. In the same way, fictional portrayals of mental illness – told by those on the outside – allow us to comfortably assume that society is heading in the right direction, that representation is where it should be. The fact is that hearing about mental illness from someone who has suffered it remains a terrifying prospect to many of us. Populating fiction with voices that speak to the despair that drives suicide attempts or the details of psychosis is to entertain the limits of the mind’s capacity to cope with the experience of being human. It is horrifying. Yet, for many of us, it is also very real.
For those who have suffered mental illness in its countless forms, giving voice to these experiences can be necessary to survival. While I will never stop applauding authors who lend their talents to the story of intrinsically human challenges, I also cannot fail to see the absences to which these literary accounts so often point. And I patiently await the time when, unlike Rochester’s unfortunate wife, representation means unlocking the attic and allowing these voices to speak for themselves.