Reviews

‘The Collected Schizophrenias’ Is a Mental Illness Mythbuster

On Esmé Weijun Wang's debut essay collection.

Esmé Weijun Wang was diagnosed with bipolar disorder the summer before she left for college, but she suspected something different was happening when she began hearing voices a few years later. After multiple hospitalizations she received a new diagnosis: schizoaffective disorder. She recounts the history of her illness in her new essay collection The Collected Schizophrenias.

Wang describes feeling relieved upon receiving this news: finally there was a name for what she was experiencing. Wang’s psychiatrists seemed to be much more uncomfortable with assigning the diagnosis. The doctor who diagnosed Wang first mentioned schizoaffective disorder as a possibility that is only slightly different from her previous diagnosis, bipolar disorder. She then recommended Wang read Elyn Saks’ memoir The Center Cannot Hold which recounts the law professor’s experience of schizophrenia.

As a psychotherapist, I cannot fault Wang’s psychiatrist for her uneasiness; I have played Saks’ TED Talk for some of my patients struggling with the diagnosis. Psychosis makes us uncomfortable. Most people (including mental health professionals) have experienced some degree of anxiety or depression, but hearing things that aren’t there or believing things that are patently untrue is much more difficult to imagine. Further complicating the matter is the persistent view that people with the schizophrenias will remain sorrowfully afflicted for life, even though the science disagrees with this assertion.

One is tempted to praise Wang’s vulnerability and courage in writing such a collection. Wang’s ability to write cogently and clearly about her experiences is not shared by all who experience the schizophrenias, as she herself notes. Patients like Wang who are largely able to get by in the outside world are often labeled as “high functioning.” In her essay of the same title, Wang processes her feelings about this:

“Because I am capable of achievement, I find myself uncomfortable around those who are visibly psychotic and audibly disorganized. I’m uncomfortable because I don’t want to be lumped in with the screaming man on the bus, or the woman who claims that she’s the reincarnation of God. I’m uncomfortably uncomfortable because I know that these are my people in ways that those who have never experienced psychosis can’t understand, and to shun them is to shun a large part of myself.”

The temptation to make Wang an example of what can be possible for those who experience psychosis negates the pain of those who suffer in more overt ways, precisely what Wang avoids throughout the book.

Arranged in a non-chronological progression, the essays form a topography of Wang’s pain. Her welcome reinvention of the illness memoir boasts no tidy resolution at the end. In writing about her experiences, Wang puts a face to the silent suffering of millions of people. Her searing honesty coupled with the strength of her writing make The Collected Schizophrenias a remarkable look into a little-understood part of the human condition.

NONFICTION – MEMOIR
The Collected Schizophrenias
By Esmé Weijun Wang
Graywolf Press
February 5, 2019

Esmé Weijun Wang’s is the author of the novel The Border of Paradise. She was selected by Granta for their once-a-decade Best of Young American Novelists list of 21 authors under 40, and she received a Whiting Award in 2018. Her essays have been published in the Believer, Catapult, The New Inquiry, Lenny, Hazlitt, and Salon. Her most recent collection, The Collected Schizophrenias, was the result of having won the 2016 Graywolf Nonfiction Prize.

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