Considering Danger: Isolation and Initiation in “The Collected Schizophrenias”

Book cover of 'The Collected Schizophrenias'

The collected schizophrenias are nested in the language of isolation. They include a range of diagnoses that includes schizoaffective disorder, schizotypy, and, by virtue of its (mis)representation in popular culture, the equal parts well-known and unknown core schizophrenia. The DSM-5 attaches words like “disturbance” and “delusion” to these diagnoses—and therefore to the people living within the confines of these stigmas. Films set in psychiatric asylums decorate their cinematic landscapes with characters who display schizophrenic symptoms, usually prompting a protagonist to assert, “But I’m not crazy.” Implied: I’m not crazy like them.

“Schizophrenia terrifies.” When Esmé Weijun Wang opens her book of essays, The Collected Schizophrenias, with this sentence, she is tracing the outline of the fracture that this discourse of isolation creates. It is easy to believe that people displaying schizophrenic symptoms inspire fear in the able-minded; this association has been as readily conditioned by the media as political binarism. The Collected Schizophrenias is rich with examples of how this fear manifests: universities expel students upon receiving their diagnosis; lawmakers write legislation about how rights can be stripped away from people because of their diagnosis; people with schizophrenia are murdered by their own family because of their diagnosis. Wang’s prize-winning book is not here to deconstruct these associations, reassemble them into shapes she finds more accurate or compelling, and present them to readers in their finished form. Her prose is more nimble than that. “Schizophrenia terrifies.” The missing pronoun in is a challenge. Wang knows who is most afraid of her own schizophrenic diagnosis—and she knows she will have to persuade readers that the sentence doesn’t end with “you.”

The Collected Schizophrenias is an assembly of such fractures, both in content and form. Its essays favor the structure of split narratives braided together;  readers are given the room in between the braids to exert their own intellectual agency. The essay forms, then, enact the ideologies of the stories they contain—by conceding space for readers to map their own mental pathways, Wang outlines the shape of exactly the agency so many psychiatric patients have been denied. Decades ago, Yale expelled her after she sought treatment for a psychotic episode. Her appeals were met with silence; the more she asserted she was capable of lucidity—of leading an intellectually engaged life while mentally ill—the less she was believed. The effect: when she recounts the death of Malcoum Tate, a man living within the collected schizophrenias who was shot thirteen times by his younger sister, Wang imagines herself into the perspective of the murderer and is unafraid to examine the contours of the sister’s terror. When she interviews people campaigning for the right to strip people with schizophrenic diagnoses of their medical autonomy, she counters not exclusively with her own experience but also by interviewing a man with schizophrenia who navigates the wound of being reduced to a diagnosis alone.

“The questions instead became about percentages,” Wang writes in “Perdition Days,” an essay that reports on what it was like to live through the longstanding delusion that she had died and was engaging in the mechanics of daily life as a “rotting corpse.” The book’s impulse to orbit its prose around quantitative data might feel distancing if Wang didn’t find inventive ways to write into an emotive, personal kind of calculus. She continues:

“What percentage of my life was going to be spent in psychosis.

“What percentage of functioning I could expect. What percentage of my life could be spent at 60 percent functionality, as opposed to 5 percent. Dr. L told me that it was ‘unrealistic’ to believe I would ever be at 95 percent, or 100 percent, again, which is excruciating for an overachiever to hear.”

Wang doesn’t go into exhaustive detail about her experiences in involuntary psychiatric commitment—which she refers to as some of her strongest sources of trauma—and by refusing to do so, she doesn’t allow others to render her pain into something performative. Instead, she moderates the perspectives of others who share the genus of her diagnosis, an impulse that animates the collectivity of the book’s title, denies the connotative isolation, and speaks of her own manifestation of the schizophrenias in terms of her most individualized filters.

For example, in passages dedicated to the silks and satins of Fashion For Writers, the high fashion blog she once ran with Jenny Zhang, Wang reaches for the theory of weaponized glamour, “a reference to Chaedria LaBouvier’s work on the concept of ‘using beauty and style in direct, political ways that subvert dehumanizing expectations.” In her use of lyricism, Wang dresses up the languages of the schizophrenias with weaponized intent: “[I] glance at my sewing table as the thought settles over me, fine and gray like soot, that I am dead,” she is not reaching for prosody to obscure or otherwise costume the realities of her diagnosis, but rather to nuance them. By dressing her own schizoaffective disorder in metaphorical Tom Ford lipstick and $400 heels, Wang is calling for a resurrection of those victims’ innate humanity.

This theme of reclamation develops as Wang begins to turn the camera outward halfway through the collection. Now that she’s demanded the humanization of herself as a character within a cultural narrative that would see her flattened into fewer dimensions, she breaks the fourth wall and turns to face that same narrative more holistically. In the essay “The Slender Man, the Nothing, and Me,” Wang positions herself within society’s demonstrated lust for objects of fear. Months after twelve-year-old Morgan Geyser stabbed Payton Luetner nineteen times on behalf of the Slender Man, a fictive figure from Creepypasta lore, Geyser was diagnosed with schizophrenia. “I do not consider myself to be dangerous,” Wang says, answering a question that was never asked on the page. When this essay breaks down into fragmented sections, the white space on the page becomes an essential framing device. After dedicating a sequence of passages to the online search history of the girls involved in the Slender Man stabbing, this line, which rejects a perceived sense of innate danger, is where she decides to break the page. The fragments here collapse onto a moment in Wang’s childhood where she recounted a myth of her own invention to her friends and could not be convinced to renounce the unreality of it. Wang is separating herself not from the violence these girls enacted or their insanity pleas but rather from the archetypal history this narrative fed into. She—and Morgan Geyser—deserve to be more than reductive evidence in the collective stereotypes about mental illness.

By the time Wang writes about the hundreds of photos she’s taken of herself while in a state of prolonged psychosis—“[The self-portraits] capture facial expressions that make me cringe later, when I see them in lucidity, because I don’t recognize them, and because they are ugly in their attempt to approximate grins”—The Collected Schizophrenias has assembled its essays as bannermen in the fight against the cultural habit of engaging with mental illness as an act of voyeurism. Though a lexicon for those uninitiated into the scientific language of the schizophrenias is provided early on, the prose ultimately emulates something essential about Wang’s self-portraits—her hundreds of Polaroids and film strips have only been seen by her eyes. This is a collection that demands, and excavates space, for Wang to be heard on her own terms. She speaks not to people who want to witness her but rather to people who are like her, people have been forced to look at their illnesses from the outside in for as long as mental illness has texturized fictional landscapes with fear and spectacle. By making public what is deeply personal, by lacquering the personal with numbers and facts in an appeal to be seen as human rather than mythic, Wang has created essential reading in The Collected Schizophrenias—but, most importantly, she has done so for those who are afflicted rather than those who would spectate the affliction.

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