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Autobiographies of Mental Illness

An Active Mind's picture

Before starting Kay Redfield Jamison’s An Unquiet Mind, I was interested in memoir’s relation to mental illness. I wondered, are memoirs like Jamison’s successful? Are they able to capture the true nature of the illnesses they discuss? Do they work to change perceptions concerning mental illness?  What are the benefits and detriments of these types of personal narratives?  

I recently reread David T. Mitchell’s “Narrative Prosthesis and the Materiality of Metaphor”, which discusses how disability as a metaphor is often used to spawn literary narratives, but he wonders whether or not disability can successfully be expressed through a textual medium. He references Elaine Scarry, who in her famous book The Body in Pain, suggests that it’s impossible to articulate pain (her book centers around physical disability, but I believe it can be applied to mental disability as well). So, it brings me back to my initial question. Can a text itself properly articulate the experience of living with a particular illness?  Can and do these memoirs prompt empathy? I’m again thinking about surface (language coats a page) and whether or not these narratives allow us to see past conventional depictions of disability and perhaps past stigma (in one of my earlier posts, I talk about how stigma is defined as being about surface). If both pages and stigma are centered around this notion of surface, do these types of narratives reinforce stigma--refusing us the ability to see beyond both the person and the page?  

Thomas Couser, in his essay “Signifying Bodies” suggests that autobiographies of disability can be both detrimental and also enlightening. He warns that autobiographers risk the “danger of sentimentalizing” (110-111) their own illness and falling into “the rhetoric of triumph, in which individuals narrate their success in overcoming adversity” (11), failing to highlight the chronic, and unrelenting, pain that accompanies many disabilities (both mental and physical). By emphasizing triumph, he says, the autobiographer comes to reinforce the binary between the sick and healthy and that it “reinforces the idea of disability primarily as a misfortune” (111). I don’t see Jamison doing either of these things (sentimentalizing or emphasizing triumph) in her memoir. She makes it clear that she is by no means free of her illness and despite being more stable than she has been in years, still worries that the manias and depressions will return.

Margaret Price, too, in her book Mad at School is interested in what the autobiography means in the context of mental disabilities. She coins the term “counter diagnosis”, in which he narrator “uses language to subvert the diagnostic urge to ‘explain’ an irrational mind” (179). Price seems to advocate using language itself to mimic the mental disabilities themselves and their often incomprehensible chaos. Although I do believe that Jamison’s memoir reveals the true pains and struggles of her own illness, it is very much invested in both the rational and logical--both which Price seems to contest throughout her book.  Jamison holds the reader’s hand and takes them along the journey of her illness, explaining the reasons behind symptoms, medications, etc. Her narrative, too, is very much linear and doesn’t always feel representative of how unlinear her disorder is, how it fails to follow the conventional temporality of the academic setting. As I’ve mentioned in a previous post, Price admires Susanne Antonetta’s A Mind Apart because it breaks down the author and reader binary and assumes an “I” that is not singular, but multiple—showing how both the illness and individual work together and in opposition how mental disabilities allow us to “form coalitions across time and space” (185).  

But, is there something to be said for the accessibility of Jamison's memoir?  I feel that she makes it easy for someone who may have no experience with mental illness to understand what she's gone through, whereas Antonetta's book comes off as dense and often hard to understand.  Maybe Antonetta and Price find comfort in not being fully understood?  As Virginia Woolf writes in her essay "On Being Ill" (which I also have as my epigraph on my page "Seeing Stigma"), "We do not know our own souls, let alone the souls of others.  Human beings do not go hand in hand the whole stretch of the way.  There is a virgin forest in each; a snowfield where even the print of birds' feet is unknown.  Here we must got alone and like it better so.  Always to be accompanied, always to to be understood would be intolerable."  




Serenity's picture


"FOREVER MARKED: A Dermatillomania Diary" by Angela Hartlin is a great memoir about her daily account living with Dermatillomania, the unknown skin picking disorder that plagues millions in North America. She goes through depression, thoughts of suicide, frustration, isolation, and emotional growth as she fights through the negative feelings holding her back from life.

A 12 page preview can be read here:

An Active Mind's picture

Notes on my Discussion with Anne

Anne and I had a long discussion about my blog post and I now recognize that my use of the terms “proper” and “true” in relation to Jamison’s memoir are problematic—they’re too platonic because our notions of what is “true” are constantly shifting based on context. Anne said that it’s not so much an issue over whether or not Jamison's story itself is “accurate”, but that narratives like An Unquiet Mind often become normalized. Jamison’s book may be read, for purposes of advocacy or education, as the quintessential representation of manic-depressive illness and fail to allow for alternative depictions of this particular mental disability. (We can see this normalizing narrative happening in queer studies too, with the conventional “coming out” story becoming potentially stifling for those who may discover their own sexualities in different ways). In this way, Jamison’s text becomes a “disabled norm” and it is for this reason that I think I found parts of it troubling.  

The memoir could be critiqued in a variety of ways. Anne suggested that some might be frustrated with the way it seems to valorize the “highs” of manic depressive illness. As I mentioned in my post, the form of the text itself also seems to contradict much of what Jamison discusses in her book; she is disappointed with the academy because it demands a certain pace, but her memoir very much takes the logic, rational pace that the academic structure demands.  

But despite my critiques, Jamison’s An Unquiet Mind is essential text for opening the door for discussions about mental illness (particularly within the context of the academy). Anne mentioned that because An Unquiet Mind (1997) was written prior to A Mind Apart (2007) or Mad at School (2011) it was able to pave the way for thinking about varieties of representations of mental illness, allowing writers (like Susanne Antonetta and Margaret Price) to experiment with riskier and more unconventional narratives following its publication.   

Anne Dalke's picture

On the stories we tell ourselves

One of the students in my course on the evolution of stories just did a posting about how we lie to ourselves....check out the video link she embeds in her posting; it gives an interesting turn to our questions, above, about just where the "true" and "proper" story lies.... Perhaps, she suggests, we are the least reliable narrators of our own stories....?

Anne Dalke's picture

So let's talk about the "truth"!

You ask if memoirs are "able to capture the true nature of the illnesses they discuss"; "Can a text properly articulate the experience of living with a particular illness?" I don't understand these questions: what is the standard against which "truth" might be measured? What constitutes "proper" articulation? That which is moderated to the point of being  palatable? Can you imagine a memoir which is larger than an individual's experience? That speaks for a group?

An Active Mind's picture

more on "truth"...

Thanks for bringing up these points, Anne!  Your comments made me think a lot about my perceptions concerning "truth" in relation to illness and autobiography.  Even if two individuals suffer from the same illness, they may experience the illness very differently--which would make for much different autobiographies/memoirs.  Also I think I may be falling into the trap of doing too much categorizing (which disability studies itself is so much against!) on the basis of particular illnesses or disabilities.  As you mention, I think that Jamison's book is about more than her illness itself and that it reaches people who may have very little to no connection with manic-depressive illness, but who nonetheless feel that her words somehow speak to or represent them.