Image: Bookshelves, by Giuseppe Maria Crespi, 1725 (Web Gallery of Art)
In a new series, Vitae asks academics, administrators, and Ph.D.'s in the nonacademic world to pick the five books that most influenced them in some aspect of their work, professional life, and career — and why. Next up: Katie Rose Guest Pryal, a novelist and freelance academic, picks five books that have influenced her research on mental illness.
The list of books that have influenced my work on psychiatric disability (i.e., mental illness) has changed over the years, and will continue to change, as I make new discoveries and as new books are written.
Given the stigma that surrounds psychiatric disability, few have written of their own experiences with mental illness until lately. And those who did so in the past tended to have immense social capital. That’s unfortunate, as we have less access to the stories of people with psychiatric disabilities who do not have social capital — who are not wealthy, not highly educated, not straight, not white, not male, and so on. Here are my selections, for now, in no particular order.
Her: A Memoir
By Christa Parravani
I only discovered this 2013 book recently. I’m only sad that there were three years when it wasn’t in my life. Her is a terrifyingly good book — a memoir written about the brutal rape, addiction, and death-by-overdose of the author’s twin sister. But that short blurb, as big a punch as it packs, doesn’t come close to describing the breadth of the book. It chronicles the sisters’ childhood, showing how trauma and poverty are difficult to escape even in adulthood. It tells the story of sisterhood, and how some entanglements are nearly impossible to unravel. It’s about the massive burden of guilt and grief. And it tells of redemption.
An Unquiet Mind: A Memoir of Moods and Madness
By Kay Redfield Jamison
Jamison’s 1996 book is on most lists of this sort. It’s achieved classic status at this point. I chose it not for the usual reasons, though. In a recent conversation, when I mentioned that I liked the book, the person I was chatting with replied, “Me, too. It’s so brave.” I do not like this book because it is brave, nor do I think it actually is “brave.” An Unquiet Mind is, however, well written and engaging, and it provides an expert's insight into a complex and highly misunderstood psychiatric disability — bipolar disorder. After all, Jamison literally wrote the book on the subject back in 1990. But this book has weaknesses. As I mentioned in the preface to this list, the early authors who wrote memoirs on mental illness (what I’ve called “mood memoirs”) tended to have immense social capital (e.g., William Styron). Jamison falls into that camp. Be prepared, then, for an accurate portrayal of bipolar disorder, told from the perspective of a highly educated, wealthy, well-employed, white person with a strong support system. As we know from the criminalization of psychiatric disability in the United States and elsewhere, most stories of people with bipolar disorder veer widely from Jamison’s.
Mad at School: Rhetorics of Mental Disability and Academic Life
By Margaret Price
Price's award-winning 2011 book takes a close look at the intersection of higher education and psychiatric disability. Price, a college professor, self-identifies in the book’s introduction as having a mental (i.e., psychiatric) disability. She proceeds to take on the rigid expectations of the academy that all of its participants be of sound mind (and what that phrase means in the first place), and that those who have disabilities don’t belong — thus contributing to “the conventional view of academe as … an immaculate location humming with mental agility and energy, only occasionally threatened (from the outside) by the destructive force of insanity.” She writes about campus shootings, class participation, expectations of “collegiality,” and more. This is the book about mental health and higher education.
The Year of Magical Thinking
By Joan Didion
I grew up in a home touched by a grief that had hit hard before I was born. As Didion takes us through the loss of her family in this 2007 book (and again in 2011’s Blue Nights), she also turns her laser-beam observational skills on the science of grief and mental health. When I was a child, my mother never let me shy away from death, and I thank her for giving me the tools to help friends who are grieving. This book, I believe, can provide similar lessons to its readers.
Marbles, another memoir, provides an excellent counterweight to An Unquiet Mind. Forney is a graphic artist who was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Marbles recounts her struggle with the illness and how she came to terms with her treatment. Not only does the graphic-memoir medium allow for an entirely new presentation of the experience of manic-depression (and wow, it really does), but here we have the story of a person who is not plugged into the medical field, and who is not wealthy, conventional, or straight. Also, early in the 2012 book, when a psychiatrist suggests Forney use yoga to balance her moods, she calls yoga a “wishy-wash noncompetitive new stretching fad.” LOL, yes. (Eventually, in Chapter 7, she gets into it, though. Sigh.)
I recently attended a conference where author Melody Moezzi gave a talk about her experience with bipolar disorder. Moezzi is a self-described “author, attorney, activist” and “Iranian-American Muslim feminist,” and I will be reading her 2013 book, Haldol and Hyacinths: A Bipolar Life, next.