Since I’ve already proclaimed my fascination with Scientology, it shouldn’t be surprising that I’m also big into books about mental illness written by the mentally ill; the former is a “religion” that calls psychiatry a pseudoscience, and the latter are documents that, when done right, reveal that belief to be total horseshit.
My first recommendation in the genre is one of the most remarkable, not just because of how well written it is, but because of the severity of the author’s illness. In The Center Cannot Hold, Elyn Saks describes her own experiences with schizophrenia with so much clarity and insight that it’s hard to believe she was ever truly ill in the first place.
Most books that focus on an author’s struggle with mental illness are about depression or bipolar disorder, since those are far more common among writers and artists, and easier to treat and manage in the long run. Schizophrenia, on the other hand, can be much more damaging and harder to control, plus the medications use to treat schizophrenia have some of the harshest side effects. So, even if the symptoms are contained, the patient isn’t likely to return to a “normal’-state, let alone be able to graduate college and law school, become a law professor, then write a riveting memoir that articulates psychosis so well you feel like you can get right into her head as she’s losing her mind.
When Saks describes the moment in law school she believed she could fly and chose to climb out of a library window to demonstrate that fact to her classmates, she does so, not just fully knowing how crazy it sounds, but remembering the logic behind her decision and explaining it with the same confidence. She doesn’t want the reader to gawk, but to understand what few people can even begin to explain. Saks, like autistic animal expert Temple Grandin, is one those brilliant people whose gifts allow us insights both into their unique disorders and the world as a whole. This is one of the best books around, not just about mental illness, but the way our brains work, and don’t work, in general, and if you have a brain, it’s worth reading.