The Collected Schizophrenias Book Cover
I’m a sucker for essay collections, especially ones that challenge social issues and misperceptions through the use of various essay forms. When I first discovered “The Empathy Exams” by Leslie Jamison, I engulfed myself knowing I would practice Jamison’s methods of weaving the personal essay narrative in my own work.
It should be no surprise that Esmé Weijun Wang’s latest collection of nonfiction, “The Collected Schizophrenias,” and a subsequent winner of the Graywolf Press Nonfiction Prize (of which Jamison also earned), is nothing but vivid and arresting. In sum, the collection is a firsthand authority on the distorted portrayal of schizophrenia and mental illness in American society. Through literary analysis and review, Wang illuminates the failed attempts many writers and film directors have made in depicting individuals with mental illness. Wang recounts her own diagnosis with schizoaffective disorder, bipolar type, her three involuntary hospitalizations to mental wards, and her history with antipsychotic medications. “The Collected Schizophrenias” demonstrates exactly as its title suggests: that the spectrum of schizophrenia is as gravely misperceived by society as it is unfortunately unexplored and unknown.
Although some of the medical and pharmaceutical terminology Wang discusses goes over my head sometimes, this ultimately doesn’t distract me from what’s at stake in “The Collected Schizophrenias.” The collection was rather accessible due to Wang’s patient, yet foreboding voice. Even as a neurotypical, Wang’s essays operated under the metacommentary that people of various mental health backgrounds need to understand the deeply ingrained problems with what psychosis is, how it should be treated, and the harmful rhetoric the media has pinned on the schizophrenias. In one essay, Wang utilizes her background as a fashion designer and editor to braid her ability as high-functioning. In another, titled “Reality, On-Screen,” she criticizes various films that misrepresent psychosis and how she distinguishes between the reality and unreality of her film-going experiences (basically, IMAX just muddies and ruins most films).
Wang, at her most adept, accelerated my reconsideration of what the definition of illness propagates in America. Likewise, Wang demystifies the language of what wellness means to us, as well. Much like the work of Eula Biss or Susan Sontag, “The Collected Schizophrenias” offers a philosophical and surgical approach to the modern literary essay. Wang’s collection stands at the forefront of creative nonfiction with emphasis on mental health. I haven’t read a collection of personal essays so viciously honest since I first read Lucy Grealy’s “Autobiography of a Face” (1994). “The Collected Schizophrenias” might potentially be the next most important book detailing the experience of schizophrenia since Elyn Saks’ “The Center Cannot Hold” (2007). Often, whenever I recommend books to friends and students I work with in the writing center, I give suggestions based on the social and cultural importance of the body of work. Esmé Weijun Wang’s “The Collected Schizophrenias” is precisely that: a concise literature of diagnostic memoir that will last for years to come.