We all like to think we’re normal. We tend to assume everyone else sees the same reality we do—but do they? We only know one mental world, and it’s pretty obvious that there’s a huge diversity of mental states, including many forms of mental illness. We now talk of spectrums rather than specific states because our minds are like a recording studio’s mixing board, with hundreds of sliders for various brain functions, and thus a infinity of different settings. The only art form that truly explores the interior world of other people’s view of reality is the novel. Poems and short stories are also revealing, but it’s the novel that explores the depth of dark worlds of other people’s minds.
Novels are the only art form that attempts to paint what the inside of the mind looks like, and the unique perspective of how different people see out. In the 20th century, stream-of-conscious novels emerged specifically to give readers the illusion of following the thinking of the characters. And it is the first person stream-of-conscious narrative that lets us feel the strongest we’re looking out with eyes that are not ours. Most novels have third person narrators that see characters from the outside and from the inside, whereas in movies and television shows we’re always watching people from the outside.
Novelists who write semi-autobiographical books tend to be even more believable for giving readers the feeling we’re viewing the inside of someone else’s mind, especially those by writers like Joyce, Proust, Wolfe, Woolf and Kerouac that wrote book after book chronicling their life in thinly disguised fiction. These writers were sensitive souls that saw their own lives as the best subjects for their art. Most novels are about made-up characters, with the best of them feeling like we’re reading about real people even when we’re not.
Autobiographical and roman à clef novels give us a tremendous boost in authenticity, even to the point that we feel more like voyeurs and less like readers. And this is most especially true when we read about tortured souls, people living in extreme situations, and those who suffer mental illnesses. The more inner nakedness the better, because these writers want to live on the razor’s edge between absolute honesty of life and the truth of fictional art. These writers know they can never let us actually see from their minds, but they can give us enough concrete details that we can almost imagine being them. Sure, like Mark Twain said, “The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.” The difference between what other people see and what we think they see is tremendous, but if they give us the right words we sometimes feel we’re seeing the lightning.
I recently reread The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath, which reminded me of how much of my knowledge of mental illness comes from novels. Since I and my friends are getting older, we often talk about dementia and mental decay, and so mental illness seems to loom closer. The Bell Jar is first person semi-autobiographical story of a young woman having a nervous breakdown, attempting suicide and then spending months confined to psychiatric care and getting seven shock treatments.
I have had two girlfriends who have had shock treatments, and one buddy at work that also had them, and I have a number of family and friends that had had various kinds of mental illnesses. My mother suffered from life-long depression, and probably was bi-polar. As far as I know she never saw a psychiatrist, but starting in the 1970s and for the rest of her life took different kinds of anti-depressant pills that provided varying levels of relief. The reason I read The Bell Jar the first time back in the 1970s was because of my girlfriend who had had the shock treatments and she asked me to read it to understand her and her experiences. The novel continues to illuminate, because I know many people who suffer depression.
In the course of my lifetime, our cultural attitudes towards mental illness have changed dramatically. When I was in high school in 1968 my English teacher got me to read The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger, which made me sensitive to the idea of “crazy” people. Catcher came out in 1951, the year I was born, and was about a young man, Holden Caulfield, in New York City having a nervous breakdown. For the rest of my life The Catcher in the Rye and The Bell Jar have been tied together like bookends, the male and female stories about young people losing their minds. Both of these books helped change society’s attitudes towards mental illness, but they also let us empathize with the plight of fragile minds, and see a different view of reality.
It’s very hard to describe this change in attitude toward mental illness in my lifetime. Even as a teen in the 1960s, kids and adults, were often cruel towards people with mental problems. There was even a comedy song about going crazy, "They’re Coming to Take Me Away, Ha-Haaa!" which some radio stations banned for being insensitive to the mentally ill. During the 1970s and 1980s as conservative policies swept the nation, we deinstitutionalized the mentally ill, with many ending up in jails or living homeless on the streets. In many books, counselors, psychologists, psychiatrists and mental facilities were extremely helpful to people, but in other stories, like On Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest they were seen as evil. We hear less about people being committed, but a lot more about people taking drugs that work on brain functions. As we learn more about the brain, we learn more about the chemistry of the mind.
As a kid, I grew up watching learning much about life from old movies, and the films of the 1940s and 1950s often explored psychology and psychiatry. Nineteenth century novels seldom suggested that they knew much about the scientific workings of the mind, even though there were many novels that were very psychological, like Crime and Punishment. It took a couple decades for Freud and Jung to come to American pop culture. Often mental homes were seen as snake pits of fear. The first half of the twentieth century was filled with horrible experiments on people to fix their minds.
As readers shock treatments (electroconvulsive therapy) were often seen as barbaric torture and other times as transformative cures. After Esther Greenwood in The Bell Jar gets her second shock treatments she become better, and we know Sylvia Plath lived another ten years after her own treatments, writing many poems that would earn her a Pulitzer after her death, a novel, getting married and having two children. Do shock treatments help people or not is hard to say, but the point of fiction is to see another view on reality. Sometimes it takes many views to add up to wisdom. We as readers get to experience shock treatments twice in The Bell Jar – once as a horror, and once in a positive light, and see how Esther’s mind turns around for the better. How intense we see Plath’s reality depends on how closely we read and decode her words.
When I was growing up in the 1950s and 1960s it was very trendy for intellectuals to brag about their psychiatrists. They proudly talked about Freudian vs. Jungian analysis, and it was generally believed with the right psychic guru we could fix our heads. Sometime between then and now people for the most part gave up on talking cures and switched to chemical solutions. My childhood would have probably been far more pleasant and stable if my parents had had access to modern pills for fixing their chaotic minds instead of self-medicating with alcohol.
When I read The Catcher in the Rye I think of my parents, because Salinger’s 1919 birth was right between the years my parents came into being, 1916 and 1920. Plath, was born much later, in 1932, but her book also helped me understand my mother. However, in the 1970s, I was much too selfish as a young twenty-something to really empathize and sympathize with her mental states. Rereading both books now later in life, after I’ve gotten older, and past the age of my parents were when they were raising me, I began to understand these novels better, and my parents.
Neither my father or mother were very good at communicating their inner thoughts to me or my sister. What I had to do was read books by people that were like them, and hope these literary people were better at expressing life with their demons. I have always felt Jack Kerouac (1922-1969) was a great analog for my dad (1920-1970). Both committed slow suicide by alcoholism, and died in their late forties. Holden Caulfield was a bit younger than my dad, but I saw a lot of my dad in him. Esther Greenwood was much younger than my mother, and very much different, but I can still find descriptions of mental states in The Bell Jar that makes me wonder if my mother had felt such feelings too.
For some reason I was different. I’ve always been fairly stable despite the fact of having two alcoholic parents that should have made my life miserable as a kid. My intense selfishness was a kind of shell that protected me. As a rebellious teen I avoided alcohol because I figured that’s what screwed up my parents and took drugs instead. I remember the first time I got passing-out drunk how I wondered why my folks loved to drink. But I realized alcohol was a drug that shut you off, and that’s what they needed. When I tried psychedelic drugs, I realized this must be like to be mentally ill. My occasional trips would last eight or ten hours, where I visited a world where my mind felt like a category five hurricane was blowing inside my head. It was these experiences where I felt like I was close to understanding mental illness. One of the reasons I stopped taking drugs was I was afraid I’d permanently screw up my mind. Knowing how the mind works when it’s broken provides wonderful incentive to avoid mental illness.
I think the best novel to help me understand my Dad is Big Sur by Jack Kerouac. The details of their lives were much different, but the giving up, the drinking, the acceptance of suicide by alcohol was the same. Both had a romantic conservative side, and a rebellious adventurous side. Neither could connect with other people and settle down. My dad was saved by the Air Force. It gave his life structure that he couldn’t maintain after his medical discharge. I think both Kerouac and my father shared the same failure to connect with women and children.
Of course, this begs the question of what novel best represents our own view of reality. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is published as nonfiction but has the structure of an autobiographical novel. Pirsig is philosophical in ways that are similar to my ways of being philosophical. If I was to write a novel about myself it would be about relating experience to ethics, aesthetics, science and technology. If I was to point to a book that revealed what my view of reality looked like, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance might be it. I need to reread it for a third time to answer for sure. I’m overly analytical. I never suffered the breakdown like Pirsig did, but I’ve always wanted to seek perfect insight through philosophical analysis.
What novel would you pick to give to friends to reveal your inner workings?
My awareness of gender views on reality that aren’t like mine, from women, gays, transgender, alpha males, etc. come from reading novels. This is true for all the kinds of people I could never be, like musicians, artists, explorers, adventurers, businessmen, etc. The concept of understanding the unlimited number of mental states that aren’t like mine through fiction is much too large of an idea to explore in one blog post.
My views on autism have been dramatically enhanced by the books I’ve read. Is autism a mental illness or a mind tuned to looking at reality very different from how we look at reality. We like to assume average is the healthy normal state, but is that true? When I read House Rules by Jodi Picoult I felt like I was in an alien mind, but to wish for the character Jacob Hunt to be normal would be to wish for a very unique person not to exist. Picoult is obviously not an adolescent boy with high functioning autism, yet her carefully crafted novel feels like I’m looking at reality with an autistic mind while reading the novel. This is also true of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon. Both of these well researched novels about autistic children help me understand my autistic niece better, and maybe get a slight glimmer of what she sees, because these writers researched the science behind the mental state of autism.
I have also read Temple Grandin and Oliver Sacks on extreme mental states, and their nonfiction books are extremely educational, however, it’s the great novels that get us closer to looking out another person’s window on reality. Actually, with me, I tend to become obsessed with the novels and the novelist. I’ve written about that before in “The Ghosts That Haunt Me.” After reading The Bell Jar again I’m tempted to start reading biographies of Plath, and her poetry. I know if I do, Plath will become another ghost that haunts me.
JWH – 8/11/14