Reviewed by ELIOT JOY
I bought my copy of The Collected Schizophrenias in spring of 2019 at a small, local bookshop with a flutter of hope in my chest. It’s rare to find literature authored by someone whose experience bleeds past the common boundaries of low or labile mood into less digestible territory. Too often, stories of psychosocial disability—commonly known through a framework of psychiatric disorder—are told from the outside looking in. We are objects discussed, our stories shared without consent. If we are to tell our stories, people want rock bottoms, dark with dirt and blood, or a soaring recovery narrative: the Hero’s Journey, writ in couch and pill and Kleenex. I was depressed, anxious, maybe abused. My life fell apart. I got help. It gets better.
Glowing blurbs and accolades promised that Esmé Weijun Wang’s collection of essays held something more for we who move through extreme states and unusual experiences, we whose perception of the world differs from others around us. We need books by us, for us. I thought that’s what I picked up to read. I thought, between writer and reader could be found a welcoming “we”.
I was disappointed. As it turns out, own voice is not enough.
Reading The Collected Schizophrenias felt like eavesdropping on a conversation between Wang and the privileged sane. The collection of essays appears to operate with the intention of challenging preconceived assumptions that plague those who receive any variety of schizophrenic diagnoses and educating an ill-informed reader as to what it means to live such a life. A worthy intention, given the long history of dehumanization and systemic abuse suffered by folks given these and related diagnoses, including those who take steps to avoid psychiatric intervention. However, Wang’s attempts to secure humanization are entrenched in a desire to meet the very sociocultural standards that define away our humanity. Her assertions of personhood too often hinged on her social performance, achievements, education, even her verbal coherence while in extreme states. As someone who has found themself so lost in language that their words no longer made sense to anyone, even themself, let me keep this short and simple:
This book hurt to read.
Critical disability theory defines disability as a sociocultural failure to meet the needs of diverse people. Colonial capitalist structures and expectations are social constructs, and as such, any inability to meet these arbitrary standards is due to culture, itself. We are disabled by the social organism, not our individual bodies. This understanding is foundational to disability advocacy and pride. Without it, discourse enters dangerous territory, blaming challenge, pain, and suffering on diagnosis, limit, and boundary. Wang falls into this category too often for comfort; too often, even, for safety.
The essay “High-Functioning” discusses a speech she gives as a member of an anti-stigma speaker’s bureau, identifying active attempts to classify her value:
“That phrase, “prestigious university,” was there to underscore my kempt hair, the silk [Mark Jacobs] dress, my [Chanel and Tom Ford] makeup, the dignified shoes. … “Prestigious university” acts as a signifier or worth.”
She goes on to describe other such signifiers—her wedding ring, her entrepreneurial pursuits—but dumbs down her language in what appears to be an attempt to make her speech more accessible and relatable. Later, addressing a group of clinicians, she reinvokes SAT words and not-so-humble-brags about her role as a researcher at the Stanford Department of Psychology’s Bipolar Disorder Clinic, where she: “briefly wondered if these clinicians would even be able to find work.” She ends the essay:
“A bespectacled woman raised her hand. She said that she was grateful for this reminder that her patients were human too. … When she said this, I was fingering the skirt of my exquisite dress. I’d fooled her, or convinced her. Either way, I knew, was a victory.”
A victory shared only by those capable of meeting exceptional standards. Wang’s résumé is an outlier regardless of her psychosocial disability. If we have to match that level of achievement in order to appear human in the minds of clinicians, only Wang and other Ivy League alumni have a chance at personhood—if they’re lucky. For most of us, if these are the standards of humanity, we’re doomed.
Wang wants nothing more than to place herself among the high-achieving sane and is more than willing to leave the rest of us in her dust. The parallels between the glorification of her own disabled exceptionalism and a “not like other girls” brand of internalized oppression are as striking as they are harmful. Wang wants the reader to know she’s not like other crazy people. Unlike those crazy people, she is smart and successful; she has worth. Never mind that her value is counted in units of measure built by the very systems that disable us in the first place.
This attitude is most obvious, even self-aware, in “High-Functioning”, but it can be found in more subtle ways throughout the entirety of the book. For example, in “Towards a Pathology of the Possessed”, Wang investigates a murder trial of Malcoum Tate, a man cared for by his family after receiving a diagnosis of schizophrenia. His mother waited in the car while his sister shot him, reloaded, and shot him again, killing her brother with thirteen rounds to the head and back. Wang uses her research of this tragedy in a blended essay, exploring cultural and situational fear of crazy people, a bill in California that would strengthen the reach of involuntary treatment of psychiatric patients, and two organizations that fought for or against the bill.
It seems Wang was attempting to show empathy for both sides of this argument and to point out a shared desire for improved access to community support for both individuals living with psychosocial disability and the families supporting them. For all the empathy she expresses for Tate’s murderers, she expressed little, if any, for Tate. She mentions his inability to speak for himself, which is certainly better than nothing, but it’s not the same thing as extending posthumous solidarity. Especially in the context of the humanizing quotes she extends to his murderers.
When Wang does offer space on the page to other people with psychosocial disability, they are usually people who have achievements and “signifiers of worth” much like her own. In “Towards a Pathology of the Possessed”, Julian Plumadore gets sizable quotes, describing his fight against the aforementioned bill in California and the power disparity between those fighting to increase the scope of involuntary practice and those fighting for their autonomy and humanity. I appreciate his story and the insights he shared about the racial and socioeconomic disparities between the two groups. It was hard not to notice, however, that she didn’t quote just anyone who fought against the bill, but a man with credentials: the manager of an anti-stigma speaker bureau and a former community advocate for another local organization.
In fact, there is a pattern in how she shares the page and gives platform to others with psychosocial disability. Those with “signifiers of worth” are treated as authority and equal, from Julian Plumadore of the speaker’s bureau, to Francesca Woodman, an accomplished young photographer who died of suicide, to Michelle Hammer, who runs Schizophrenic.NYC, an advocacy-focused clothing line. Those without “signifiers of worth” are treated by Wang much the way we are treated by sane people. They are given small vignettes, cautionary tales and examples of madness too far gone. She goes so far as to quote Jacques Lacan, who drew the line between the mysticism of John of the Cross and the madness of Daniel Schreber as such:
“…while John of the Cross wrote in a poetic way, Schreber did not.”
If certain aesthetics are required for us to maintain our personhood in the eyes of those in power, anything from taste to education to money will gatekeep our access to humanization. I can see how Wang might overlook the problem of aesthetics; after all, she, like many others, is empowered by fashion, a fact more uplifting than repeated reassurances that she has never experienced word salad. She can pass as sane when others cannot, and this passing protects her; even when she can’t pass, she is, at least, coherent. Rather than discuss her passing in terms of privilege or use her power to connect with those more marginalized than herself, Wang offers meager, handwringing self-reflections that do nothing to mitigate the damage of internalized ableism:
“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.”
This fear of connecting with others like us also manifests itself in the erasure of our self-advocacy and organization. When I first read Wang’s essay “On the Ward” online, her glancing reference to “survivor-based movements” made her own voice narrative even more exciting. But again, I was disappointed. This is Wang’s only reference to psychiatric survivors and never does she specify what they survived. As a psychiatric survivor, this horrifies me. Nothing improved my quality of life like being connected to others who recognize the harmful, neglectful, and abusive practices suffered under the banner of psychiatry. Survivor communities save lives.
Not only does Wang fail to specify what she means by “survivor-based movements”, but her research reflects either a bias against or a woeful ignorance of such movements at large. In “Diagnosis”, an essay ripe with a variety of sources, she makes a sudden pivot from research into anecdote:
“Sometimes I encounter people who don’t believe in mental illness. These people may have been diagnosed with depression or anxiety at some point, but are usually symptom-free when I meet them. Often, they claim that such diagnoses are oppressive to those with unique abilities.”
If Wang cared to do her homework, she would find that survivor-based Mad Pride and Antipsychiatry movements have been spearheaded by people much like herself. People who have seen things and heard things others haven’t, who have suffered involuntary confinement and chemicals forced into their bodies, regardless of consent. A variety of cultures around the world view voice-hearing and other phenomenon through frameworks entirely other than the colonial strongarm of the American psychiatric paradigm, including frameworks of spirituality and connection to unseen forces. I can’t help but wonder how a book so lauded for its research overlooked these widespread, international movements, given her “prestigious” education.
The dearth of critical disability literacy in Wang’s book made it difficult to enjoy the true strength of her essays: the personal narrative. It’s a shame; Wang is a good writer. I enjoy her work when it doesn’t hurt. There are several I would recommend reading, despite some hesitation:
“On the Ward” and “Perdition Days” depict extreme states and unusual experiences in-scene, without straying into sensationalism or spectacle.
“John Doe, Psychosis” and “Chimayó” explore the intersection of psychosocial disability, trauma, and chronic illness.
“Beyond the Hedge” provides a grounded example of non-clinical community support and less-colonial perspectives and frameworks for unusual experiences, as well as avenues of study and tools others can use to improve their sense of personal agency.
I believe that Wang worked very hard on these essays, striving to inform and debunk as she felt best equipped. I also believe there is more to challenging stigma than intellectualism, aesthetics, and exceptionalism. The Collected Schizophrenias fails to lift up anyone other than those who meet or exceed standards set by the systemic structures producing the conditions that disable populations of psychosocial diversity in the first place. Wang’s collection alienates the audience it might have touched and caters to an audience wielding power over us.
If you are interested in learning more about critical disability theory, mad pride and mad studies, and psychiatric survivor movements, I offer you the following resources:
Meet the blogger:
ELIOT JOY lives between some rivers and near a few lakes. Forever Falling Sideways of the Icarus Project first published their poetry in 2013. Their love of writing has been fostered since they were six years old.
Work has been cancelled. School has been cancelled. Indeed life as we know it has been cancelled. Many of you might even be social distancing at home in your childhood bedrooms, away from your friends and writing community. Today, Runestone is here to offer you a writing distraction, that just may help you clean our cache of bookmarks any reader worth their weight in paper is sure to have stashed in the drawers or books.
Bookmarks are almost as essential to reading as the actual book itself. Without them, pages get folded and torn. Spines become bent and frayed from being left open upside down. Places are completely lost and precious reading time wasted frantically trying to remember where you left off.
A lot of people take bookmarks for granted, some are cheap handouts at events, some expensive, some a masterful work of art, some a ripped notebook page or playing cards. But really they’re essential to any complete reading experience.
So if you need some inspiration for your current writing project or just want to see how many bookmarks you have hiding in your bookshelf, here’s a fun way to use your reading partners to change up your writing.
Step one: Raid your books and bookshelves, find as many bookmarks as you can. Make sure to replace them with a playing card from an incomplete deck so you don’t lose your place. Once you have at least five then you can have some fun.
Step two: Spread the bookmarks out on a flat surface, table, floor, desk, doesn’t matter. Arrange them in any shape or alignment you wish. Have a notebook and pen, or your computer nearby, whatever you want to write on next to you. Start something new or continue something old.
Step three: Examine your bookmarks. Do any of them depict a type of landscape? A forest, desert, the ocean, a city? Take that landscape and make it the setting of your story or scene. If you have more than one bookmark landscape, use that for the next story or scene.
Step four: Do any of your bookmarks have writing on them? Take the second, fourth, or eighth word (Depending on how long the message is) on each bookmark and use that to start or end your next few sentences.
Step five: Take the brightest colored bookmark in your collection. What’s the texture of it? Smooth, soft, rough? What’s it made out of? Paper, cloth, yarn? Use the details of the bookmark to craft a new character to use in your story or scene.
Step six: do any of your bookmarks have tassels on them? If you do, tie them together. Twist them up as tight as you can. Make each tasseled bookmark into a character, using step five, that has tangled, complicated relationships with each of the other characters. If you can, use them in this story or save them for another project.
Step seven: Are there any animals depicted on the bookmarks? Have this animal be the companion or pet of one or more of your characters if there’s more than one animal.
Step eight: Choose any two bookmarks, your favorite ones. Use any images depicted, people, animals, landscape, colors to determine the next major external conflict of your story or scene.
Step nine: Choose two different bookmarks, doesn’t matter which ones, to determine how your story ends. Use the texture, images, words, animals, people of the bookmarks to figure out how you want to resolve the story or scene.
Once your story or scene is complete or has reached a stopping point, make sure to put all bookmarks back in the books where you found them. Do what you wish with the story or scene, keep it, edit it, add on to it, delete it, toss it in the trash, light it on fire and watch it burn in the kitchen sink.
Feel free to pull out the bookmarks again, or find new ones and write with them as much or as little as you want.
Meet the blogger:
KATIE FLINT is a recent graduate of Hamline Universty with a BFA in creative writing. Her work can be found in The Fulcrum, and Sensicality. She loves writing fiction and poetry and enjoys exploring different genres. She adores dogs and almost every other creature on the planet except mosquitos. She can usually be found on the floor binge watching Netflix while her puppies snooze on the couch.
There is a box, buried deep in my closet that contains easily hundreds of letters I have received over the course of my life – from pen pals, for birthdays, from kids I’ve babysat, even the occasional scrap of paper with a scrawled sentence passed to me in class. I will be the first to admit that it’s a bit of a pack-rat tendency to hang onto all these letters, but there is something charming and nostalgic that keeps me from ever willingly being able to part with them.
Perhaps I am overly-sentimental, but there’s an often unnoticed beauty in a handwritten letter that is slowly dwindling away in the rise of much more efficient forms of communication. Why sit down to laboriously write out a letter to someone that will take days to even get to them? There is certainly no longer much logic to it, but there is a lost art.
I have found that it can be deeply personal to receive a handwritten letter. In an age where everything is being transformed to the peak of hyper-efficiency, knowing someone took the time to find some paper or a card, whip out a pen and write a note solely for my eyes can be more meaningful than a quick text message or email. Beyond that, the importance does not dwindle with time. As I look through dozens of letters, there’s still an excitement in unfolding paper that has become soft at the edges, reading old letters I’ve already read, learning again what someone wanted to tell me.
Beyond that, I love the uniqueness of handwriting. I’ve heard countless people say that they hate their handwriting or that it’s terrible. I argue that no handwriting is truly terrible. Even the near illegible handwritings that take a bit of deciphering are wonderful, because they are just like humans – consistently different. Handwriting could even romantically be looked at as a physical expression of their personality.
To those who may argue that they never know what to write in a letter, I am well acquainted with that prick of anxiety when staring at a blank page and realizing that you have no idea what you want to say to that person. But I also have a “letter” buried in my cardboard box that is just my name written about thirty times all over the page and it still makes me smile when I see it. Sometimes it doesn’t have to be the eloquence of the words we write, but rather the gesture of human kindness in written form. Beyond that, as much creative energy you use to write a story or a poem could easily go into writing a letter. Just because you have a much smaller audience doesn’t mean you can’t make artistic choices in your creation.
As writers, we have the opportunity to utilize our love for the written word and create messages to those important to us – to uplift them, to tell them a story, or just to make them laugh. With the holidays approaching and the wallets of students always too thin, maybe a handwritten letter could take the place of a gift. Maybe the joy found in receiving a letter is not universal, but there are those who would deeply appreciate the gesture and perhaps you never know until you try.
Meet the blogger:
MOLLY JOHNSON lives and writes in the Twin Cities. She is a graduate of Hamline University, with a BFA in Creative Writing. She was awarded the 2018 HU Broadside Award in Fiction and is now pursuing her writing career outside of college.
Do you remember a dream you’ve had?
Maybe you’re standing on top of a high place, or maybe you’re sitting on your bed and it’s teetering on a point. This sense of dread fills your stomach; your lungs are petrified as you wait and anticipate the inevitable fall that will occur. And yet, the anticipation never truly prepares you for when you do fall. It’s a fingersnap, a case of bad whiplash, and you find yourself jerked awake from sleep.
Maybe you’re stuck in a recurring pattern. Every night you close your eyes, you transport to a location, a person, or an event that you’ve been to previously. The feeling of recognition as you enter, the annoyance that bubbles through your veins as you try to leave only to come back around to where you began. Or maybe the sense of déjá vu tingles your senses as you traverse the familiar area.
Perhaps you’re lucid dreaming, stuck in the grey area between sleep and waking life. This is where you have the greatest amount of control; you make the conscious effort to interact with your subconscious environment. You know that you are dreaming but there is fun in the thought of ‘physically’ playing with your imagination, although Mary Ruefle says in her book, On Imagination, that “…the imagination is not what you play with, the imagination plays with you,” (7).
Associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard University, Robert Stickgold, says “In the broadest sense, dreams mimic a critical stage in creativity: brainstorming a range of possibilities, or what psychoanalysts call free association.”
Even in sleep, you take creativity to new levels. Those range of possibilities? They come from all your memories from that day as they coalesce together in your dreams and twist to create entirely unique t scenes and dialogues.
Or maybe you don’t dream at all. It’s a dark void, a black hole, that happens every night. Could it be you simply don’t remember? Quite possibly you do remember some snippets of your dream only for it to disappear within the first five minutes of waking up.
Maurice Sendak, quoted in an article by Flavorwire, says “‘What dreams do is raise the emotional level of what I’m doing at the moment. They add color or counterpoint to the work, acting as an almost symphonic accompaniment to what I’m doing.’”
Your feelings, actions and reactions, things you heard, saw, smelled; all of it becomes the physical representation of your metaphysical dreams. It’s the blank spaces in a journal sitting near your bedside where you can attempt to word vomit everything you can possibly remember about your dreams.
As soon as you wake up, your journal should be the first thing you grab. You may frantically scribble to capture those last wisps of your nocturnal imagination. Or a simple sentence is all you record, the last taste that lingers on your tongue. Does it matter what type of journal? A spiral notebook, an ornately covered diary, post-it notes stuck onto a hanging board, or even fragments of your voice in audio files on your phone can all be considered for your dream journal. You decide what form your dream journal will take.
It will become a pool of resources that you draw from for creativity. Just like your writing journal, your dream journal will be full of thoughts and ideas that are just waiting to be used. The personal emotions and actions that you have recorded are transferable to characters within your stories. After all, dreams (and even nightmares) can be considered the creative imagination of your subconscious brain can they not? And following all this, what dreams do you remember?
Meet the blogger:
SANDRA VANG recently graduated from Hamline University with an English major (concentration in creative writing) and a minor in Chinese. When she’s not writing or reading, she is spending her time hanging with friends somewhere in a corner. Currently, she is working on a few short stories and microfiction.
After binge watching the second season of Netflix’s original series GLOW: Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling, I was so drawn to (and distracted by) these women of the ring that my fan fiction(?) brain, started to imagine who their literary role models might be. I feel compelled to share my list so that we all may find inspiration from the. . . GLOW: Gorgeous Ladies of Writing.
Character: Ruth Wilder
Ruth is so traditional in her way of thinking, but she loves to break the rules. She believes she does everything correct, but is the first to apologize when she does something wrong. For these reasons, I think she would enjoy Jane Austen’s work, focusing on the feminine aspects of 18th century British nobility (not to mention the occasional themes and handling of infidelity).
Character: Debbie Eagan
Debbie is a bull headed woman that isn’t entirely rational. She is hard to negotiate with, a master at getting what she wants, and is prone to making rash decisions to fix temporary problems with permanent solutions. Daphne du Maurier is a romantic novelist I think Debbie would love if for no other reason than her quote, “women want love to be a novel, men a short story.”
Character: Sheila the She-Wolf
Sheila is by far the most mysterious one of the group. Her keen senses and acute relationship with nature makes her a character of curiosity and very memorable. Victorian era writer George Eliot is a great writer that seems to reflect similar characteristics: a nature enthusiast, feels as if she is one with animals, and is just trying to teach her readers self understanding.
Character: Tamme Dawson
Despite her controversal wrestling character, Tamme is a woman with lots of love to give. She recognizes the flaws her character depicts but decides to own it rather than let it own her. As a single mother trying to raise her son to stand up for what he believes in, I think she would recommend Maya Angelou.
Character: Melanie Rosen
Party girl Melanie is very outgoing and ready for anything. Her open sexuality and feminist point of view makes her a very personable character and relatable to many viewers. Her sarcasm and sense of humor are very similar to that of Erica Jong, who pushed the boundaries of modern feminism back in the 70s with her novel Fear of Flying.
So yes, by all means, watch the show; it’s fun. But then consider picking up a book by one or two of these characters’ writing doppelgängers; the bad ass women of writing.
Meet the blogger:
ALEXA CALLIGURI recently graduated from Hamline University. She won Hamline’s Broadside Award for CNF in Spring 2018. She lives in Lonsdale, Minnesota, where she is made fun of for taking things out of the trash and putting them in the recycling bin.