BY CAROLINE MAO ’22
In her autobiographical essay collection, “The Collected Schizophrenias,” Esme Weijun Wang discusses her personal experiences with a variety of mental and physical illnesses, particularly schizoaffective disorder. Wang’s simplistic definition of schizoaffective disorder is that it’s the “offspring of manic depression and schizophrenia,” but she also notes that it must include a major mood episode, so “the disorder may combine mania and schizophrenia, or depression and schizophrenia.” The collection begins with her journey towards diagnosis and includes topics such as her family’s history of mental illness and their refusal to acknowledge it, her expulsion from Yale as a result of her repeated psychiatric hospitalizations and her decision not to have children.
I was particularly struck by a handful of the 13 essays which compose “The Collected Schizophrenias.” As a college student, I was moved by her essay, “Yale Will Not Save You,” an account of her struggles to receive proper treatment and support as a Yale undergraduate student and her eventual expulsion. She went on to transfer and graduate from Stanford, then work in Stanford’s psychology lab, but Wang doesn’t try to paint this as an example of success grown from suffering or of the tired trope of the “inspiring” mentally ill person. She barely talks about her experiences at Stanford, aside from a brief and honest note in another essay. She writes that when she introduces herself to people — usually people who aren’t mentally ill — during talks about her mental illnesses, she emphasizes her prestigious education to impress upon her audience her intelligence and sanity.
In “On the Ward,” Wang focuses on her experiences with hospitalization and discusses the debate around the involuntary hospitalization of mentally ill people. Though she makes it clear that her hospitalizations were negative experiences which worsened rather than improved her illnesses, I appreciated her sympathy for those who supported involuntary hospitalization. In another essay, “Toward a Pathology of the Possessed,” she mentions Beth, a supporter of the National Alliance for Mental Illness (NAMI), which supports the adoption of a bill called AB 421 that allows for the involuntary treatment of a mentally ill person. Beth, who has had a schizoaffective relative hospitalized over 70 times and struggles financially as a result of her attempts to get him treatment, supports AB 421. Wang writes, “How can anyone possibly argue a case against this woman, who has found herself in terrible circumstances as she tries to help someone she loves.”
As someone who has worked in Stanford psychology labs, Wang’s knowledge of her mental illnesses are not purely anecdotal. She provides information, historical facts and statistics about the illnesses while continuing to keep her writing accessible. The topics she discusses are complex and often receive little visibility in the public eye, and her simple and elegant prose is a pleasure to read. For example, in “High Functioning,” she discusses a “natural hierarchy” during her first inpatient experience in a psychiatric hospital, “guided by both our own sense of functionality and the level of functionality perceived by the doctors, nurses and social workers who treated us.” This hierarchy is created because some mentally ill people are considered “easier” or “more convenient” to deal with than others; for example, people with depression are often able to hold normal conversations, whereas people with schizophrenia are not.
I appreciated Wang’s essay collection for its candor and clear writing style. It does not exist to give inspiration, but rather to provide insight. Though she notes her accomplishments in life — her prestigious education, her work as an editor and writer, her academic success and her skills in fields of art, fashion and research — many of her essays focus on her everyday life and the effort required to function with her mental illnesses. She writes about the stigma and discrimination she has faced, but she is not vindictive and does not treat her writing as a method of enabling her personal vendetta against those who have wronged her.
If you’re interested in “The Collected Schizophrenias” and want to read more books like it, check out T. Kira Madden’s “Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls: A Memoir” or Bassey Ikpi’s “I’m Telling the Truth, But I’m Lying.”