Esmé Weijun Wang is a novelist who has been diagnosed with Schizoaffective Disorder.  The Collected Schizophrenias is a book of personal essays that was the 2016 winner of the Graywolf Press Nonfiction Prize. 

A precocious young person on a track to success, Wang experiences a manic episode at Yale that leads to her first hospitalization.  After a second hospitalization, her college washes its hands of her.  Hitting roadblocks time and time again requires her to rebuild her life over and over.  This is not a conventional chronological autobiography but rather essays that provide different approaches to the author’s experience of mental illness.  The plural “schizophrenias” of the title encompasses the whole schizophrenic spectrum of disorders.  As Wang explains, her own diagnosis is “the fucked-up offspring of manic depression and schizophrenia” (p. 10).  

In an essay entitled “High-Functioning” we learn how the author, having been a fashion editor, knows how to pass for normal: “My makeup routine is minimal and consistent.  I can dress and daub when psychotic and when not psychotic.  I do it with zeal when manic.  If I’m depressed, I skip everything but the lipstick.  If I skip the lipstick, that means I haven’t even made it to the bathroom mirror” (p.44).  

Later, in “The Choice of Children,” volunteering at a camp for bipolar children makes Wang think about what it would be like to inflict her diagnosis on her own offspring.  In “Reality, On-Screen” she attempts to convey the sensation of decompensating to psychosis.  And in “Yale Will Not Save You” she considers the failure of universities to accommodate mentally ill students. 


This is a special and rare book.  As with Elyn R. Saks in The Center Cannot Hold, Wang’s disability seems not to have robbed her of her cognitive faculties, resulting in a sense of lucidity. Yet, at the same time, we are never far from madness. As a result, the essays glisten like polished jewels while the author’s voice retains the air of authenticity.  

While Wang has understandably had ambivalent experiences, in every case where The Collected Schizophrenias might have lapsed into an anti-psychiatry rant, the author instead considers a range of perspectives.  She is devoted to taking her medication, yet she open-mindedly explores alternative therapies, spirituality, and even the notion that her illness might have bestowed talents or some evolutionary advantage on her.  

We should not have to be reminded that once civilians become patients they do not lose their intelligence.  Wang writes that “a primary feature of the experience of staying in a psychiatric hospital is that you will not be believed about anything” (p. 98).  Indeed, when she is asked how she is doing and she replies she is doing well, she is said to be lacking in insight. At other times, she is advised by certain well-meaning people that given her diagnosis “I should be proud of how coherent I am” (p. 54), and by others “who don't believe in mental illness... that in other cultures, a person who would be diagnosed with schizophrenia in the West might be lauded as a shaman and a healer...They are likely to be the type who boast about never taking aspirin for a headache” (p. 23).     

There are many insights to be found in this book that should prove eye-opening to mental health practitioners.  It should be required reading for anyone who wants to understand the experience of having an illness.     


Graywolf Press

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