Narrating disease in ‘The Collected Schizophrenias’

Sunday, February 3, 2019 - 5:56pm

“I tell myself that if I must live with a slippery mind, I want to know how to tether it too,” Esmé Weijun Wang writes in the final sentence of “The Collected Schizophrenias: Essays.” In her first non-fiction work, Wang sets out to articulate the capricious, harrowing whims of her mental illness by situating them in the personal and aggregate histories of schizophrenia. The result is a selection of stories from Wang’s life, each one informed by a thorough analysis of the laws, policies, norms, desires and realities that shape the experiences of those living with the pathology that makes up what Wang calls “the collected schizophrenias.”

These essays interrogate and explain various facets of mental illness, chronicling the histories of schizophrenia while simultaneously unrolling a map of Wang’s life. Wang describes schizophrenia as a narrative disease, an affliction whose progression can be mapped through the evolution of a protagonist. In this case, the protagonist is different iterations of Wang herself: as a child, in college, after being expelled from Yale, living in San Francisco. The text moves through years of transformations and diagnoses, each of which offers partial, contorted answers to the fundamental queries of the book and of her life. In every essay, the same themes arise: Is there some inner self that lies beyond the reaches of mental illness, a consciousness that disease makes invisible but leaves intact? What does wellness look and feel like? How does the production of art change the answers to these questions?

Wang is also the author of a novel, “The Border of Paradise,” which was released in 2016. She earned an MFA in fiction from the University of Michigan in 2010 and attended both Yale and Stanford for undergrad. Wang readily presents this information to the reader, carefully describing the ways she has wielded her biography as a defense — for herself and to others — against the real and stereotyped instability that is associated with schizophrenia.

Wang characterizes schizophrenia as the engineer of a precariously fluid reality, one whose skewed boundaries and deteriorating infinities eliminate the distinction between phantasms and the exterior world. Within this distortion, the senses no longer situate a person inside the certainty that accompanies an objective knowledge of the world.

For example, Wang’s mental illness sometimes manifests as a dissolving of the partition between what is interior and what is exterior. As she describes in “Reality, On-screen,” this can make watching movies and reading fiction harrowing. The warped reality of worlds similar to our own can trigger psychosis.

Writers are tasked with creating accurate or alternate realities, so this aspect of schizophrenia is particularly complex for Wang. Wang was cycled through a series of diagnoses before her doctors settled on schizoaffective disorder, bipolar type. Her mental illness is resistant to treatment, and while one of the final essays of the book is about the current state of her treatment (she has not had delusions or hallucinations in four years), there is a palpable tenuousness with which Wang imparts this information. As Wang explains, schizophrenia is a unpredictable illness, one whose trajectory and manifestations are often unclear.

Wang’s capacity to externalize self-knowledge is one of the great satisfactions of reading “The Collected Schizophrenias.” She is as good at illustrating her interior self as she is at interrogating the simplifications and false narratives inherent in memoir. This often appears as self-directed compassion, a quality that permeates the whole book.

In her second essay, “Toward a Pathology of the Possessed,” Wang tells the story of a schizophrenic man who was shot to death by his sister with the help of his mother. Wang is characteristically sympathetic — she understands how it feels to be mentally ill, but she also knows “the burden of care becomes the burden that breaks people.” Wang’s compassion is reflected and buoyed by her technical skill as a writer; the work is grounded by her ability to discuss those forces that determine what lies within the unbounded spaces carved by empathy. Her words linger and reverberate, their frequencies determined by the reader’s emotional equipment. She gives us exactly as much as we can take.

“When I think about the murder, I think about how excessive thirteen shots is,” Wang writes. “I also think about how a man who loomed over your bed in the middle of the night, a man who claimed to be sent by God to kill your daughter, might seem like a man possessed by evil, and therefore capable of anything, including surviving gunshot wounds — even if you once loved him, or still do.”