Mental Illness Memoirs

There is now a whole category of memoir and autobiography genre that is called mental illness memoir or psychological memoir for lack of a better term. As I am interested in the memoir genre anyway, I have over the years read many fascinating memoirs and even graphic novels on these topics, first hand reports in the trenches of psychosis, mania, depression, borderline personality disorder, even one by a self proclaimed pathological liar!

At times they all seem to blend together: first there is childhood and background history and setting, then description of first “breakdown” or psychosis, subsequent hospitalization and/or treatment and recovery program, the transformation undergone by the author in recognizing, coping with, accepting her mental illness and/or addiction, the return to normal life that will never be the same, and how one deals with reentry into society or staying an outsider on the margins of society. There is also often discussion of the effect of mental illness on family relationships, where the author found support and acceptance and where not. In addition, there is often guilt about being mentally ill and draining family and friends- another common topic.

I would add here that in identifying the typical formulas of such memoirs, I do not mean to devalue them; in fact despite such repetition, I find it fascinating how each person has her own unique experience despite the similarities evident in these books and the movies made from them as well.

Obviously as a therapist I am fascinated with the unique and individual journey of a person over time and how the healing process can occur in so many different ways. Society’s constantly shifting attitudes towards mental illness also fascinate me. The courage involved in bearing your soul and describing intimate personal moments, even those you are ashamed of, is extremely admirable. And of course, when a large part of the book is taken up with the relationship between author and therapist, those are the most interesting memoirs. Case in point: one of my favorites called, “Get Me Out of Here: My Recovery from Borderline Personality Disorder”, by Rachel Reiland (a pseudonym), all about her struggles with anorexia and BPD. This book was great, as there is a lot of detail about BPD, especially the author’s awareness that identifying it and knowing she suffered from it actually helped her, and her courage and honesty do a great deal to erase the special stigma of this controversial diagnosis. As a therapist, what I liked most about this memoir was her focus on the long ongoing relationship with her therapist because she had great memories of sessions and was able to convey with great writing how reparative that therapy was for her.

So I find that Rachel’s book sets the bar high for this type of memoir. That is why I hate to say it, but I was not impressed by Mark Vonnegut’s memoir, entitled, “Just Like Someone Without Mental illness Only More So”. To be quite honest, I don’t even like or really understand the title. Is it meant to express just how good he was at going to Harvard med school and becoming a pediatrician despite his struggles with bipolar disorder and hospitalizations and this it makes him even more like ” normal” people? I just don’t get it. Having read really a lot of these memoirs, in comparison with a lot of ones that I liked or loved, this one did not impress me.

Before I continue to criticize this book, here’s a list of just a few of these books I found compelling and moving: “Drinking: A Love Story”, by Caroline Knapp- the title says it all!, any of Kay Jamison’s books but especially her personal struggles with bipolar disorder in “An Unquiet Mind” is a classic… Another classic psychological memoir also written by a therapist is Carl Jung’s “Memories, Dreams, Reflections”. Any of Lauren Slater’s many memoirs of her trips through depression and crazy land make for great reads, including “Lying” whose first words are “I exaggerate.” I also enjoyed “The Quiet Room: A Journey Out of The Torment Of Madness”, the only book I’ve read about schizoaffective disorder, by Lori Schiller and Amanda Bennett. Brooke Shields’ “Down Came the Rain” is brave, moving, personal, quite beautifully written and a pioneering book in this genre, the first of its kind about a “normal” person developing Post Partem Depression. The graphic novel I don’t remember but have on my bookshelf is “I’m Crazy”, by Adam Bourret, but obviously I don’t find it particularly memorable! These are just a few of a host of others. I should leave the movies on this topic for another post.

Getting back to Vonnegut’s book, the most recent one which I finished last week, I was very disappointed and I guess had an uncommon reaction to it, as it received a lot of great reviews. Someone called it the most insightful and enjoyable memoir he’s read in some time. Well not for me. Yes it was candid; all of these memoirs are. However, something was missing for me. I did not feel like I got a really good peak into his personal life or psyche. I got a good impression of his desire to be a doctor and brave foray into medicine, despite bouts with mental illness, but he seemed still almost shocked that he got into Harvard Medical School and got to be a pediatrician. I got no sense of his relationship with his psychiatrist or his feelings about medications or experience with them. This book just did not go that deep. I did not get that wonderful feeling of intimacy that I’ve gotten repeatedly from others of its kind. I was not moved and did not experience any profound feelings while reading it…

Stay tuned for a discussion of films of this type…

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