My main issue with The Collected Schizophrenias was Esmé Weijun Wang’s reliance of putting on a tough and unemotional front while recounting her horrifying experiences with schizoaffective disorder bipolar type. But yet I feel guilty for this quality of her writing bothering me as much as it did. Wang’s illness has rendered her unreliable emotionally and mentally in the eyes of most people her entire life. She has been misdiagnosed (as bipolar before her psychologist diagnosed her as schizoaffective in a flippant email), and then diagnosed with a condition that many doctors consider unverifiable (late-stage Lyme disease). She has had to make herself appear well and stable to keep people from righting her off as crazy.
I know all these things, yet while reading The Collected Schizophrenias I couldn’t stop wishing that she would stop working so hard to portray herself as tough and composed and embrace the vulnerability she felt during her horrific experiences with hallucinations and involuntary hospitalization. She writes about her journey with her illness like Joan Didion writes about losing her husband and daughter one after the other, but the problem with that is Wang doesn’t give us the painstakingly introspective look into her mind during her experiences that Didion does. This makes sense, Didion wrote about her experiences in The Year of Magical Thinking (focused on the sudden death of her husband, John Gregory Dunne, and the illness of her daughter Quintana) and Blue Nights (focused on Quintana’s death) essentially as they were happening. Much of Wang’s experiences she is writing about are over a decade past. And the impression we get is of her writing about them from a distance, not completely detached but definitely distanced from the raw emotion she was feeling at the time. It made me want to scream Let me in! While many memoirs lately bask in the opportunity at victimhood, often not entirely earned, Wang has earned sympathy and understanding yet tries so hard to avoid coming off as a victim. Most of all, though, she has earned the right to be angry – at the illnesses that have made her endure more than most people ever could, and at the fallibility of science and the mental health industry.
Instead of screaming she channels her anger into exploring the past and present of mental illness. She writes about Francesca Woodman, a brilliant photographer whose raw self-portraits inspired everyone from Nan Goldin to Instagram Influencers, who killed herself by jumping out a window at the age of twenty-two; the killing of Payton Leutner by her friends Anissa Weier and Morgan Geyser as a tribute to Slender Man; and Nellie Bly’s Ten Days in the Madhouse. Wang’s unemotional and objective writing style is a perfect match for covering these deeply complex subjects.
There are two books inside The Collected Schizophrenias: one is Wang’s story of her own experiences with mental illness, and the second is her exploration of how our culture has responded to mental illness throughout history. Both books are deeply engrossing, and although I do believe her writing style is more suited to the latter, I also believe that both would have been improved if fleshed out more. At only 200 pages, the two stories often feel in conflict. The essays fully focused on either her personal story or historical matters are the strongest, while the ones that combine both are less focused.
Wang, who wrote the acclaimed novel The Border of Paradise, has stated in interviews that she never intended to write a nonfiction book, but fell into it by accident while writing the essay “Perdition Days” for the website The Toast and being encouraged by how much interest it received. Hearing that gives the impression that she wrote the book as catharsis, as a means to get the experiences off her chest and to make use of the various fascinations she discovered along the way. Viewing the book in that way reveals how talented of a writer she is, where a project worked on reluctantly still contains so much power.