Do I Have the Right to Inhabit Another’s Mental Illness in Fiction?
Sarah Faber on Writing Her Mother's Life
My mother had bipolar disorder. So did her father. While I do not, I recently wrote a novel in which one of the main characters has bipolar disorder. I did my best to imagine myself into his mind. I read some of the scientific literature about the condition and several memoirs by people who have lived either with bipolar disorder or by someone who has it. I quizzed my aunt about her memories of growing up with my grandfather. My mom wasn’t diagnosed until I was in my late teens and she died a few years later, so my own direct experience with the disorder was relatively brief. I once found a stack of letters in her frenzied scrawl to countless celebrities demanding that they be more active in fighting for animal rights (I can still clearly imagine the one addressed to “Betty White, Hollywood”). There were entire diary entries in which she wrote as Anastasia, slain daughter of the Russian Czar. I have vivid memories of her talking seriously about aliens, and of the Bible verses she shouted on the street corner near her apartment. This last manic act despite her previous insistence that all forms of piety were “sanctimonious bullshit.”
Twenty years on, such recollections are now reduced to colorful, though painful, anecdotes. These were the times when my mother was most out of reach, verging on a caricature of madness, of its most tired clichés, though that wasn’t how she experienced her condition, at least not while it was happening. Having suffered for decades from both depression and lupus—an exhausting and chronic physical illness—she suddenly felt energized during these bouts of mania, vital, and blessed with an almost divine clarity and sense of purpose. For years she had slept away two thirds of each day, and now she could stay awake writing for hours. She had essential truths to share. She felt alive. But those who loved her knew it couldn’t last; she might do something dangerous, go off with a stranger, get arrested, or simply burn out like a waning star. In writing my novel, I wanted to capture that strange duality of experience—the schism between how the world is experienced by someone with bipolar disorder and how they’re seen by those who love them, and have to watch them spin away. And now that I’ve finished my book, I’m sometimes unsure if I should have even tried. As someone who isn’t bipolar, do I have the right?
Madness has always been fertile material for artists. In part, this is because a romanticized vision of madness can be seductive, especially when the alternative appears to be a life that is oppressively conventional. Proponents of the anti-psychiatry movement of the 1960s and 70s insisted that it was society that was ill, while mental illness was a construct wielded by institutionalized medicine to suppress the creativity and freedom of non-conformists and maintain the status quo. This is an appealing idea: I sometimes wanted to believe my mother was just a misunderstood eccentric rather than someone suffering from a complex disorder that required life-long treatment. Even the word itself—“madness”—conjures something more alluring, appealing, more capricious and creative than “mental illness.” In the collective imagination, unstable geniuses once stalked the streets at night, dismissed by a society of drones, of ordinaries, precisely because their insights are too painful, too acute, too true to be believed. But we know better now, and our vocabulary has changed accordingly. “Madness” has become dated, even offensive, while “mental illness” is clinical, respectful, destigmatizing.
And yet, the equation of mental disorder with illness, while useful, seems inexact. When we say that bipolar disorder or schizophrenia or depression are the result of chemical imbalances in the brain, we are pointing to the real, material causes of mental issues in an effort to destigmatize them. We are saying there’s no reason to be embarrassed if you have a mental disorder, just as there’s no reason to be embarrassed that you have a heart condition or diabetes. All that is clearly true, but in important ways mental disorders are also very different from those other kinds of illness. The diagnosis of mental illness is also deeply wrapped up in societal norms. While mental illness is tightly linked to brain chemistry, it also manifests as disruptive behaviour. And we have an eternal fascination with disruption, with chaos, and with challenges to the prevailing order.
The mad genius, the beautiful, tortured savante—these tropes persist because there remains, for many, something deeply intriguing about them. In my own novel, the bipolar father has elements of both these archetypes. Maybe the stereotypes aren’t totally unfounded, if you think of the many fascinating personalities who have been diagnosed (some retroactively) with bipolar disorder: Van Gogh, Frances Farmer, John Ruskin, Sinéad O’Connor, Gustave Mahler, Jackson Pollock, Kurt Cobain, Graham Greene, Ada Lovelace, Lou Reed, Marilyn Monroe, Nina Simone, and Frank Sinatra, to name a few. And while there are countless other examples of creative geniuses without bipolar disorder, it seems likely to me that such heightened experiences, swinging between extreme poles of mood, must create in some minds a kind of intense sensitivity; a unique way of experiencing the world that lends itself to creation, to empathy. But is that assumption in itself objectifying? In creating a fictional bipolar character, have I distorted what is a potentially dangerous medical condition requiring medication and management by bending it to my own artistic purposes? I tried to confront this risk through research, and by reading the stories of people who have actually lived with the condition, rather than simply looking to clinical sources.
Of particular importance to me was the fascinating chronicle of living with bipolar disorder, An Unquiet Mind: A Memoir of Moods and Madness, in which clinical psychologist and psychiatry professor Kaye Redfield Jamison writes about her condition from both a personal and academic perspective. She recounts a manic episode during which she truly believed she had traveled to Saturn, as well as other thrilling experiences she’s had while “high.” But she also writes frankly about what happened when her mania reached its fever pitch, and ideas came too fast, leaving her mind overwhelmed, unable to focus. Soon followed ruined relationships, spending sprees that ended in near-bankruptcy, and, finally, the crashes: crushing depressions and suicide attempts. When asked if she would “choose” mania, Redfield Jamison has said she would but only because she has access to lithium, which manages her symptoms. She believes that, left untreated, her bipolarity would have killed her long ago. And this acknowledges an important, uncomfortable truth about her disorder: at times, it can be exciting and generative, even for the people who experience it by proxy. But for most with bipolar, and for those close to them, the creativity and energy are neither lasting nor sustainable; both the highs and lows tend to intensify over time. The longer my mother lived with bipolar disorder, the more damage was done to her finances, her relationships, her body. And ultimately, she began to feel very alone. As social creatures, most people can’t thrive while experiencing a reality separate from everyone around them.
Given the risk of misrepresenting such a serious, complex condition, should people who haven’t experienced it even try? And if so, how does one do so without screwing it up? Virginia Woolf, herself famously bipolar, 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. Schopenhauer suggested, I want to think with someone else’s brain. After all, isn’t the effort to extend our imaginative sympathies beyond ourselves at the very core of why we write, and why we read?
But should my desire to live infinite alternate lives through fiction, as a reader or a writer, trump the rights of people who’ve truly been through those experiences to have their stories told honestly and accurately? In writing a character who is bipolar, as I did, am I writing from a place of assumptions, stereotypes and received truths? I can’t know. I can’t even claim that I have “the right” to try. Maybe I’m letting myself off the hook, but I’m not sure I really believe in “rights” when it comes to art. Rather there are efforts; those that are sincere, sensitive, curious, researched and respectful versus those that are crass, exploitative, thoughtless and cynical. Most efforts probably lie somewhere on a spectrum between these two poles. The effort can—and should—be critiqued, and even those that offend sometimes generate worthwhile debate (though that argument is probably cold comfort to those who are repeatedly misrepresented).
Ultimately, I decided to take the risk. I saw how much my mother suffered, how she became more and more isolated as her actions became increasingly bizarre. People shrank from her. At times, I did too. Her behaviour sometimes bordered on the grotesque: her basement full of ragged, moldering clothes, love letters to the singer of Metallica, and boxes of old TV guides; the beloved 20-year-old cat she kept in her bed for more than a full day after it died; the envelopes full of hair she had pulled out, neatly tied in the tiny elastics used for braces. For years I reduced these awful memories to funny stories as a way of shrinking them, draining them of their real impact, so I could avoid acknowledging—even to myself—just how disturbed her mind had become. And how embarrassed I was. And how I hadn’t done enough to help her because, at age twenty, I didn’t know how and it was exhausting to try. But these are not amusing anecdotes, and she was not “crazy”; she was ill and those were expressions of acute loneliness and anxiety.
It may sound grandiose and presumptuous, but in writing my novel I was in some sense atoning for the ways I had failed to understand my mother when she was alive. I tried to create a character with bipolar disorder, not simply a bipolar character. In the end, I hope he is funny and charming, light and dark, occasionally selfish, even cruel, but more often empathetic. And deserving of empathy. All things my mother could be. Before she died, my mother tried to write her life story but only managed to produce seven pages. I like to think I’ve now told at least some part of it, and that a novel is the opposite of an anecdote.
As a society, we still exploit and denigrate mental illness—we fear it, and because we fear it, we belittle it, we try to weaken its power, and we fail to truly understand it. One way to move beyond this is to continue asking questions and to make space for people who live with mental illness to tell their own stories. Perhaps another is to try, with empathy rather than fear or entitlement, to extend our imaginations beyond our own limited experiences into other lives, other worlds.
Sarah Faber’s All Is Beauty Now is available from Little, Brown.