Writing Right with Dmitri: Writing Mental Pain
A friend says to me, 'You remember Svetlana? She broke up with her husband. Couldn't deal with it anymore.'
'Oh,' I say. 'I'm sorry to hear that. What was the problem?'
'You know,' she replies. 'He's a numbers theorist.'
'Oh, yeah,' I say.
If that doesn't make sense to you, you haven't known any numbers theorists. (Think chess grandmasters.) In my life, I've known a lot of nutty academics, so I'm aware of the way in which living around them (us) can put a strain on the less loosely-wrapped. Which is why I often find fiction so amusing. All those well-dressed college professors in the fil-ums, with their beautifully-appointed houses and manicured lawns…
1970. My dad, the engineer, at the breakfast table. 'My colleague Jones is tired of that neighbour of his. Pitt professors, huh.'
Me, annoyed at this dissing of my school: 'What's wrong with this Pitt professor?'
Dad: 'He doesn't trim his yard properly. He runs around in an old sweatshirt and torn jeans. He's got a beard.' I nod politely, while my dad straightens his tie and goes off to the office in a suit – on a Saturday, reflecting on cultural differences..
Where Have You Been?
Getting back to the numbers theorist: what is often going on, besides differences in mental discipline, is a tendency to be on the spectrum of what may, or may not, be mental illness. I spent quite a while consorting with a mathematician colleague who had all the symptoms of Asperger's. I never asked him if he'd been diagnosed. I just worked around his peculiarities. But then, I'm not really fazed if a friend asks, 'Did you see the UFOs last night?'
I just say, 'No. I'm sorry I missed them. What did they look like?'
Maybe it's just me, but I seem to have known a lot of people through the years who fall outside the statistical norms. This doesn't bother me – and when it comes to writing things down, it's a positive advantage. I can draw from memory.
That's not only true of mental illness. It can extend to physical problems, as well. I know a bit about mobility for the blind, for example: a blind school friend bowled a strike at the bowling alley on one of our Saturday sessions, and the whole place cheered. We were surprised they'd been watching, because it had never occurred to us that our bowling group was unusual, other than Lizzie, of course, who was fully sighted and fully dangerous. Once, Lizzie let go of the ball in mid-swing. It flew over her head and almost brained the scorekeeper in the next lane. Cindy, who couldn't see, wasn't the one we were worried about.
It's all what you've been exposed to, I suspect, and that was why I should not have been surprised this week to read a blog by a college student praising the US TV series Hannibal – you know, the one about the cannibal serial killer – for its honest portrayal of mental illness. I sometimes assume that everyone knows these things, but the blogger pointed out that statistical studies have shown that the majority of people get their ideas about mental illness from popular fiction and films.
Think about it.
That means that when most people think of autism, they think of Rain Man. When you say 'schizophrenia', they think of Russell Crowe. This is upsetting to me. When I think of Russell Crowe, the words 'anger management' pop into my head. I'm a massive admirer of John Forbes Nash, another numbers theorist with issues, but I'm sorry, that's not exactly what it looks like when it's at home.
So what do we learn here?
Telling It Like It Is
What we learn is twofold:
- People are going to learn about mental illness from fiction, just as they do for physical handicaps they aren't familiar with.
- This presents the writer with both a responsibility and an opportunity.
The responsibility is to remember:
- Everyone is different.
- People don't fit in boxes.
- An individual is not the sum of his/her symptoms.
The opportunity is a chance to:
- Introduce readers to other experiences.
- Make readers aware of others' needs.
- Show – with understanding and sympathy – what it's like to live with other conditions.
Growing up, I knew people with a variety of mental and physical conditions that might be considered statistically unusual. One thing I didn't run across was autism. For that reason, I found Mark Haddon's novel The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night really enlightening. The narrator of that story lives with a form of autism. The book is deeply moving. It helps you grow.
Charles Dickens was one of the first great practitioners of psychologically insightful writing. In A Tale of Two Cities, he drew a haunting picture of PTSD. Where he learned this, I don't know for sure, but he had been to visit Eastern State Penitentiary when he was in the US, and he'd seen first-hand the sort of psychological damage done by long-term solitary confinement. In A Tale of Two Cities, Dr Manette has recently been released from years of such confinement in the Bastille. His rescuer, a Parisian wine-shop owner, cannot bring him into the light immediately. When Manette's daughter comes to see him, this is what she finds. Pay attention as she observes the conversation between her father and the wine-shop owner, whom he takes for a prison guard:
"You are still hard at work, I see?"
After a long silence, the head was lifted for another moment, and the voice replied, "Yes – I am working." This time, a pair of haggard eyes had looked at the questioner, before the face had dropped again.
The faintness of the voice was pitiable and dreadful. It was not the faintness of physical weakness, though confinement and hard fare no doubt had their part in it. Its deplorable peculiarity was, that it was the faintness of solitude and disuse. It was like the last feeble echo of a sound made long and long ago. So entirely had it lost the life and resonance of the human voice, that it affected the senses like a once beautiful colour faded away into a poor weak stain. So sunken and suppressed it was, that it was like a voice underground. So expressive it was, of a hopeless and lost creature, that a famished traveller, wearied out by lonely wandering in a wilderness, would have remembered home and friends in such a tone before lying down to die.
Some minutes of silent work had passed: and the haggard eyes had looked up again: not with any interest or curiosity, but with a dull mechanical perception, beforehand, that the spot where the only visitor they were aware of had stood, was not yet empty.
"I want," said Defarge, who had not removed his gaze from the shoemaker, "to let in a little more light here. You can bear a little more?"
The shoemaker stopped his work; looked with a vacant air of listening, at the floor on one side of him; then similarly, at the floor on the other side of him; then, upward at the speaker.
"What did you say?"
"You can bear a little more light?"
"I must bear it, if you let it in." (Laying the palest shadow of a stress upon the second word.)
The opened half-door was opened a little further, and secured at that angle for the time. A broad ray of light fell into the garret, and showed the workman with an unfinished shoe upon his lap...
Later in the novel, when the doctor becomes stressed, he reverts to shoemaking as a form of therapy. Dickens is full of insights like that. We can learn from him.
Tools of the Empathy Trade
What do we need here?
- Knowledge. Read up. Observe. Listen. Know what you're talking about. Don't just make it up.
- Empathy. Use your imagination to feel your way into every situation.
- Patience. Work things out. Take the time to follow the process the character goes through in doing something that you might take for granted.
Why should we do this? Obviously, because writing isn't a no-fault exercise. We're responsible for what we put out there. If people are going to get their ideas from us, we should make sure those ideas are worth getting. There's personal growth involved here, too, of course. But the main reason is that nobody is an island. We owe this to each other.
- Go find fiction – writing, cinema, or television – that describes a mental health issue. Critique it. Are there people who act like Monk, or is the 'defective detective' just a piece of frivolous (and sometimes tedious) nonsense? If you're not sure, look up support groups for Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. Are they pleased or outraged by this show?
Sometimes, you will be surprised. Try reading these Amazon customer reviews on Helena Bonham Carter's performance of a woman with Lou Gehrig's Disease (ALS) in the film Theory of Flight. (Then see the film.)
- Pick a mental problem you have. It doesn't have to be the kind that requires major medication – you might have a mild neurosis, or a phobia. Try writing a few paragraphs about a character with this problem. If you believe you're perfect, we won't contradict you. Choose something someone you are close to has. Don't criticise, empathise.
There. Have you learned something? Go and share it.