The Center Cannot Hold

No, I'm not talking about the future of American politics or the U.S. Supreme Court. The above is the title of a wonderful new book by University of Southern California Law and Psychiatry Professor Elyn Saks, a former teacher of mine and a person I feel privileged to count among my friends. Elyn Saks has written extensively in the area of mental health law and has, in addition to her legal credentials, a degree in psychoanalysis. Her new book, however, is not a work of scholarship but a memoir -- a riveting and illuminating account of her experiences as a person who suffers from schizophrenia. The book begins at Yale Law School, where Elyn was a student in the mid-1980's and where she experienced a psychotic break while meeting with her study group in the library. She then takes us back in time, focusing on a period during which she studied at Oxford and was hospitalized for the first time. We watch her coming to terms with her illness and ultimately figuring out how to cope with it and still live her life the way she wants to live it.

The book is wonderful in a couple of ways. First, the writing is superb and therefore a pleasure to read. Second, Elyn manages to explain mental illness to readers in a manner that is both easy to follow and successful at conveying the distinction between a "schizophrenic" (that scary person talking to himself on the subway from whom everyone looks away) and a person -- a kind, generous, brilliant, and warm person -- who suffers from a debilitating condition that requires treatment. Evidencing her generosity, she emphasizes in her story that people should not look at her case and think "Why can't Johnny, the man in my family suffering from schizophrenia, also become an accomplished scholar? Elyn Saks managed to do it." The lesson, instead, is that people with schizophrenia are not so different from everyone else and that what distinguishes them should make the rest of us feel lucky and empathic rather than superior and distant.

Though I enjoyed A Beautiful Mind very much (confession -- I saw the movie but did not read the book), Elyn's book is better (if one can compare movies to books) at making the reader identify with the struggles of a person suffering from psychotic illness. By the end of the book, one comes to love Elyn and wish her well, as though one has known her for years (and I say this, realizing that I have known her for years but feeling like I have met her anew through her book, which I could not put down). I must add to the praise of its content that I am in awe of Elyn's courage in writing such an account. Though mental illness has become increasingly common in the population (especially PTSD, no thanks to our Commander in Chief), the stigma attached to it has not abated very much over the years. And this is even truer of thought disorders such as schizophrenia than of the so-called mood disorders such as depression and manic-depression. For a person of status like Elyn to write a memoir of schizophrenia is accordingly to take a risk -- people can either look at others with schizophrenia in a new and more enlightened way or they can look at the writer of the book in a less flattering light and say "now we now that she is one of 'them.'" I am hopeful that most readers will do the former, but Elyn's willingness to risk the latter in her effort to educate us all says a great deal about her character.