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Book Review: Esme Wang's The Collected Schizophrenias

“In these investigations of why and how, I am hoping to uncover an origin story . . . Because How did this come to be? is another way of asking, Why did this happen?, which is another way of asking, What do I do now? But what on earth do I do now?” -The Collected Schizophrenias

The Collected Schizophrenias doesn’t offer a simple answer to the initial question, which hangs heavy at the end of the opening essay, “Diagnosis.” Rather, Wang’s collection of thirteen essays offers readers a constellation of insights. Insights into her personal experiences with treatment-resistant schizoaffective disorder; into the medical research and explored treatments (or lack thereof) for psychotic disorders and chronic illnesses; into cultural perceptions of psychosis as portrayed in popular films and tv, for example, and how those differ from the realities of those suffering. Such an evasion of simplicity disrupts the familiar patterning of narrative summary, but that is the achievement of The Collected Schizophrenias. It is easy to see how it won the 2016 Graywolf Press Nonfiction Prize that awards “beautiful, daring, and original writing” for work “grounded in observation, autobiography, or research.”

One of the most compelling aspects of Wang’s writing is her ability to inform her readers – of the history of a diagnosis and contemporary medical research, for example – while also telling deeply personal stories. In “Perdition Days,” Wang writes while experiencing what’s known as Cotard’s delusion. During this rare strain of psychosis, first described in 1882, she is unable to emotionally connect with the faces of even her closest loved ones, and she firmly believes she is dead. She brushes her teeth even though it’s pointless. She gives away much of her wardrobe. She asks her husband to tell her stories about her, about her parents, about their life. She tells herself “through mirrors and dressing up and Polaroids and weighing [herself], You have a body. The body is alive.”

In addition to lyrical prose about the corporeal, the essays often include cultural touchstones that effectively highlight how public perceptions of mental illness have been shaped (or challenged). In “On the Ward,” Wang examines the idea of asylums as portrayed in popular TV (e.g. American Horror Story) and books (e.g. Nellie Bly’s 1887 exposé, Ten Days in a Mad-House) next to her own and others’ experiences of having been involuntarily committed. With an ethnographer’s attention to detail, she renders the dynamics of commitment, care, and discharge within a psychiatric hospital, compassionately vivifies the patients suffering within, and provokes serious consideration of the ethics of care and bodily autonomy for those with mental illness.

Though research and cultural commentary are ever-present in the book, Wang never forgets the place of personal narrative from which she is writing. In craft and content, The Collected Schizophrenias is a liminal work. Or, for me, it felt like a work of bridge-building: between the art of lyrical memoir and the precisely researched essay; between one individual’s experience and collective stories; between reality (whatever that is) and perception; between wellness and illness. With a tone of practiced acceptance and a calm commitment to the truth, Esmé Wang has gifted us a book that disrupts any notion of a monolithic narrative about schizophrenia (“High-Functioning”), a book that does not shy away from the complexities and contradictions of living in a body (“John Doe, Psychosis” and “Chimayo”), and a book that offers multiple possibilities to stay tethered to unanswerable questions.

Review by Cassie Blair, CLA team member


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