“The Collected Schizophrenias: Essays”
by Esmé Weijun Wang
202p. Graywolf Press. $16.00
I hate you. “I hate you” was what a shower told Esmé Weijun Wang during her first year of college. As she got older “shadowy demons” would pursue her. She would always narrowly dodge them. She also died. Or at least thought she was dead for a few months.
Esmé Weijun Wang’s “The Collected Schizophrenias: Essays” is a collection of essays that takes an uncomfortably personal look at one of the most talked-about but rarely understood mental illnesses, schizophrenia.
Wang’s essays vary in style and content but all have her schizoaffective disorder at the heart of them. They also dangerously and annoyingly vary in readability. The early essays (“Diagnosis” and “Towards a Pathology of the Possessed” and “High Functioning”) attempt to clarify and educate readers about schizophrenia. What is so challenging to understand about schizophrenia is its actual definition versus what popular culture defines it as. In “Diagnosis” Wang gives you a very dry and dense (and overwhelmingly boring) crash course in her illness. She even acknowledges the principal problem with the essay in the most interesting line of perhaps the whole book, “To read the DSM-5 definition of my felt experience is to be far from the horror of psychosis and an unbridled mood; it shrink wraps the bloody circumstance with objectivity until the words are colorless.” The essay, however, then continues to descend into a series of paragraphs that read like footnotes in a scientific journal article.
“Towards a Pathology of the Possessed” and “High Functioning” are two clunky essays that try to cover two aspects of schizophrenics, the burden they put upon their family members and how some groups have tried to legalize involuntary treatment and how schizophrenics and others are trying to stop that; and about how a high-functioning schizophrenic is treated and listened to. The first essay has a discussion about “The Exorcist” shoved in the middle of it thus destabilizes the whole essay; and the second while about public speaking reads like an improvised speech that drops threads and picks them back up again later when you’ve forgotten what she’s talking about.
The later essays such as “Perdition Days” which Wang wrote while suffering from Cottard’s Delusion, a very serious delusion in which you believe you are dead, while informative make you feel like you just went down a WebMD rabbit hole.
Where this collection shines is when Wang lets us see how she interacts with people and art. In these essays (which comprise the middle “section”) because Wang effortlessly blends memoir, arts criticism, and science together.
“Yale Will Not Save You” is about Wang’s brief time at Yale during which she experienced her first hallucination and delusions and her subsequent removal from Yale. The essay, while it could have fallen into pretentious tropes, soars because it mixes a memory with a discussion about how colleges treat mentally ill students.
“The Choice of Children” is first and foremost an internal debate as to whether Wang wants to or even should have kids. She knows schizoaffective disorder is genetic because her family members had it. She also worries about what will happen if she goes into psychosis while dealing with her child. These worries are wrapped around a story about how her and her husband, C., worked at a three-day summer camp for children with bipolar disorder. The connection she makes with one particularly troublesome camper throws another bowl of confusion in her whole way of thinking.
“The Slender Man, the Nothing, and Me” and “Realty, On-Screen” are two essays with a simple premise: Wang watches two movies and writes about them. What makes this essay different from typical movie essays a la Roger Ebert or Anthony Lane is that Wang could have lapsed into psychosis while writing them. The first essay follows the story of the two girls who tried to kill one of their friends after becoming obsessed with the Slenderman myth. Wang wonders whether she could have done something similar and realizes that she had a similar obsession with “The Never-Ending Story” and lost friends over it.
The second essay is about “Lucy” a Scarlett Johansson flick where Johansson gets to use the full functioning power of her brain and how a person with schizoaffective disorder reacts to watching movies. What was particularly interesting about the second essay was when Wang points out that when ordinary people watch a movie, they have to suspend their disbelief. When schizophrenics watch a movie, the movie can become indistinguishable from reality. “The film goes forth to embellish, with vivid cinematic track, its definition of what true reality is.”
Every essay collection has a few essays which could have been left out. Even David Sedaris, the god of modern essay collections, has a few bad essays here and there (e.g. “Barrel Fever”). Wang is a talented writer and a genius but her essays needed a lot of editing. She will motivate her readers to learn about the mental illnesses—elsewhere.