New York Times Review
In an era when many Americans feel on the edge of a nervous breakdown, when paranoia reigns, and reality has turned slippery, Esme Weijun Wang's collection of essays about the line between sanity and psychosis is particularly well timed. Wang, the Whiting Award-winning author of the 2016 debutnovel "The Border of Paradise," comes to the topic honestly. She has experienced multiple psychotic breaks and hospitalizations, beginning nearly 20 years ago in her freshman year at Yale University. This story may sound familiar: "The brilliant female student who ends up in an asylum" is a well-trod literary genre both in fiction and nonfiction (Sylvia Plath's "The Bell Jar"; Susanna Kaysen's "Girl, Interrupted"; Kay Redfield Jamison's "An Unquiet Mind"; Elizabeth Wurtzel's "Prozac Nation"; Elyn R. Saks's "The Center Cannot Hold," to name just a few), and "The Collected Schizophrenias" is, indisputably, an addition to this lineage. However, Wang's book is also a departure from these more narrative-driven works. In Wang's kaleidoscopic essays, memoir has been shattered into sliding and overlapping pieces so that the story of her life subtly shifts from essay to essay. The images and insights Wang summons from these shards are sometimes frustrating, but often dazzling, and worth the reconstructive work, especially in the places where Wang is able to illuminate the lived experience of psychosis, transforming schizophrenia from its popular depiction as a soul-erasing demonic possession to simply another form of human consciousness. Wang begins the book on relative terra firma: In an essay titled "Diagnosis," she lays out the basics of not only her own diagnosis, schizoaffective disorder, but also the other flavors of schizophrenia. She quotes liberally from the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (D.S.M.-5). She covers the history of psychosis from the ancient Egyptians, who attributed it to a poisoned heart and uterus, to Eugen Bleuler, the early-20th-century Swiss psychiatrist who coined the term "schizophrenia." She runs through the nature and nurture of schizophrenia and theories about the possible evolutionary utility of the disease (ranging from schizophrenia being an unfortunate stowaway on genes for communication and creativity to schizophrenics as "ad hoc 'cult leaders' whose bizarre ideas split off chunks of the human population"). However, in a pattern she'll repeat in subsequent essays, almost as soon as Wang has established a shared reality between herself and the reader - schizophrenia exists and here are its parameters - she begins to undermine that reality. She points out the dehumanizing aspect of her D.S.M.-5 diagnosis - "it shrink-wraps the bloody circumstance with objectivity until the words are colorless" - and describes the D.S.M. as "like the Judeo-Christian Bible, one that warps and mutates as quickly as our culture does." She raises the idea that "my experiences with psychosis are a spiritual gift rather than a psychiatric anomaly." And she makes clear the mind-altering power of the diagnosis itself: " Giving someone a diagnosis ?&?? of schizophrenia will impact how they see themselves. It will change how they interact with friends and family. The diagnosis will affect how they are seen by the medical community, the legal system, the Transportation Safety Administration and so on." The first half of "The Collected Schizophrenias" spirals around the human rights of mentally ill people. Wang considers the ethics of involuntary treatment (having experienced it, including being put into restraints, she's against it). She highlights the irony and pathos of her strenuous efforts to seem more "high-functioning" than other people with schizophrenia by keeping her signature red lipstick crisp, wearing designer clothing, flashing her wedding band and exalted alma maters (she attended both Yale and Stanford: "T went to Yale' is shorthand for I have schizoaffective disorder, but I'm not worthless"), and, hilariously, when involuntarily hospitalized in Louisiana, trouncing "the other patients in a mandatory group therapy word game, not allowing anyone else to score a point." In the wryly titled essay "Yale Will Not Save You," she argues that universities are not doing enough to accommodate mentally ill students (and delivers perhaps the most evocative description ever of a swampy New Haven late summer as "hot and damp like the inside of a feverish mouth"). Wang's essay on her and her husband's decision not to have children ("The Choice of Children") is the saddest and most successful in the book. Wang is able to show off her novelist's eye for detail, character and dialogue in her description of her time spent working at a camp for children with bipolar disorder. And her prismatic approach to ethical questions serves her especially well here: Would Wang be heartbroken if her child were "like her"? Is being like Wang so very bad? Would Wang's child hate her? Or might Wang, mindful of her illness, be an exceptionally good parent? In later essays, Wang examines various types of delusions, from the banality of children's imaginary games to the immersive experience of an I MAX film, and lays bread crumbs from these familiar landmarks most of us have experienced to the most exotic forms of psychosis she has suffered (Wang once became convinced that she was dead and living in an eternal hell in a rare syndrome called Cotard's delusion). Her descriptions of what it's like to descend into psychosis are viscerally enlightening: "The more I consider the world, the more I realize that it's supposed to have a cohesion that no longer exists, or that it is swiftly losing - either because it is pulling itself apart, because it has never been cohesive, because my mind is no longer able to hold the pieces together, or, most likely, some jumbled combination of the above." She continues that it "feels like breaking through a thin barrier to another world that sways and bucks and won't throw me back through again, no matter how many pills I swallow or how much I struggle to return." in the last two essays of the book, Wang gives the kaleidoscope two more dizzying turns. First she raises the prospect that she may not have schizophrenia after all, but "neuroborreliosis" as a result of a "controversial" diagnosis of late-stage Lyme disease, a diagnosis she chooses to believe - and seeks exhausting and expensive outof-pocket therapies for - despite a stern warning from her Stanford neurologist to stop these treatments. In the final essay, she finds a spiritual mentor, whom Wang pays to teach her about the "sacred arts," and returns to the idea of schizophrenia as a spiritual gift. Her guru opines, for example, that Wang's Cotard's delusion that she was dead might have been a really dramatic way of Wang's "ensouled part" telling the rest of her about the undiagnosed Lyme disease. At times, the pervasive disorientation Wang employs in these essays - the zigzagging narrative, the tangled sense of time, the repetitions, the abrupt announcements of ever more diagnoses (PTSD, bipolar disorder, fibromyalgia, Lyme) - can be distracting. One alternately wishes Wang had been subjected to more disciplined editing and to more questioning of her vantage point. At other times, her multifaceted arguments can be gratifyingly mind-expanding. Just as the reader is beginning to despair that Wang is as charming but unreliable a narrator as Holden Caulfield, she observes that one of the hallmarks of being a psychiatric patient is "that you will not be believed about anything. A corollary to this feature: Things will be believed about you that are not at all true." While the reader may not become more trusting of Wang's perspective after reading these essays, she will certainly become more likely to challenge her own. 'Another world that sways and bucks and won't throw me back through again.' RACHAEL COMBE is a freelance writer and the former editor at large of Elle magazine.
Publishers Weekly Review
In this penetrating and revelatory exploration, novelist Wang (The Border of Paradise) shows how having a bipolar-type schizoaffective disorder has permeated her life. Stating that "my brain has been one of my most valuable assets since childhood," she writes with blunt honesty about striving to be seen as "high functioning," aware that "the brilliant facade of a good face and a good outfit" drastically affects how she is perceived. She explains her decision not to have children, while recalling time spent working at a camp for bipolar children, and muses about viewing her condition as a manifestation of "supernatural ability" rather than a hindrance. Wang invariably describes her symptoms and experiences with remarkable candor and clarity, as when she narrates a soul-crushing stay in a Louisiana mental hospital and the alarming onset of a delusion in which "the thought settles over me, fine and gray as soot, that I am dead." She also tackles societal biases and misconceptions about mental health issues, criticizing involuntary commitment laws as cruel. Throughout these essays, Wang trains a dispassionate eye onto her personal narrative, creating a clinical remove that allows for the neurotypical reader's greater comprehension of a thorny and oft-misunderstood topic. Agent: Jin Auh, the Wylie Agency. (Feb.) © Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.