Mona Simpson on Reimagining Mental Health Hospitals in Her New Novel
In Conversation with Mitzi Rapkin on the First Draft Podcast
First Draft: A Dialogue of Writing is a weekly show featuring in-depth interviews with fiction, nonfiction, essay writers, and poets, highlighting the voices of writers as they discuss their work, their craft, and the literary arts. Hosted by Mitzi Rapkin, First Draft celebrates creative writing and the individuals who are dedicated to bringing their carefully chosen words to print as well as the impact writers have on the world we live in.
In this episode, Mitzi talks to Mona Simpson about her new novel, Commitment.
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From the episode:
Mitzi Rapkin: In Commitment, which is about three kids and a single mother, we see the matriarch, Diane, suffering from mental illness. As a reader we are watching each kids’ journey and how they deal with Diane’s journey, and how I would say mental health is communal, that it doesn’t affect just one person. And so I’m curious about the inception of the idea of writing about mental illness and what you wanted to explore with these characters?
Mona Simpson: I grew up myself, without siblings, I grew up as an only child with a single mom. And I would say, my mom, who’s now dead, suffered from some mental health challenges. I mean, she managed, and she worked, and she did all right, she raised me, but she definitely suffered herself. And I remember in 2012, Oliver Sacks published a piece called The Lost Virtues of the Asylum. He had worked for 25 years in a mental health hospital in Bronx State.
And he started out by saying how in our generation, we’re in the sort of post-institutional age, I mean, there aren’t these big state mental health hospitals anymore, there aren’t orphanages anymore, there aren’t homes for unwed mothers anymore in the same way that all these institutions were around when I was growing up. And he actually starts out by saying, of course, the image we have in our minds of the old state mental health systems is the snake pit like the cuckoo’s nest, you know, but he remembers in his 25 years of working there, many patients who were actually helped by living in a smaller, safer world. And I guess this book started out being set right at the point where the mental health hospitals were beginning to empty out, so it was a little bit of a “what if”.
I’ve always felt with my mother’s life, as I said, I had a single mother who worked very hard, and did her best and did pretty well, but suffered a lot. And I’ve always felt that what would have happened if there had been an alternative for her? I think it probably would have been worse for me, but it was it was sort of my question of whether it would have been gentler for her.
Mitzi Rapkin: After you wrote this, did you come up with an answer?
Mona Simpson: I think like so many things, yes and no. You know everything comes down to people, you know, and a sort of luck. I mean, if she had been in a particularly gentle kind ward, with a nice nurse and a good doctor, yes, that would have been good. If she had been in one of the more overcrowded places with someone indifferent or cruel because of course that existed too, it would have been worse.
Mona Simpson is the best-selling author of Anywhere But Here, The Lost Father, A Regular Guy, Off Keck Road, My Hollywood, and Casebook. Off Keck Road was a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award and won the Heartland Prize from the Chicago Tribune. She has received a Whiting Writers’ Award, a Guggenheim fellowship, a Lila Wallace-Reader’s Digest Writers’ Award, and an award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. She is on the faculty at UCLA and also teaches at Bard College. In 2020, she was named publisher of The Paris Review. She lives in Santa Monica, California. Her new novel is called Commitment.