This post is inspired by my annoyance at the misrepresentation of mental illness in a novel I am reading.
I assume most people read fiction for leisure. But I think it’s also safe to assume that we learn from reading that fiction, too, and that it’s some of the most interesting learning because you’re not really always aware that you’re learning, but it stays with you. Like, there was a time when I coincidentally read 2-3 novels in a row set in WW2. I have never studied WW2 properly in school (possibly because of shifting school systems several times) but I learned a lot about that period through those books. And movies, too, of course 🙂 It drives me crazy that something like the Da Vinci Code is half-truth half fiction, for example 🙂
Anyway, back to the mental illness thing. It’s such a hugely misunderstood and sensitive issue on society, that I feel really strongly about how it gets represented in literature. I feel the same about learning disabilities. I know from an English friend of mine who sends me her favorite UK newspaper articles that discussing mental illness is still an issue there. It’s much worse here in Egypt, but not a non-problem elsewhere.
So this novel i am reading. One of the main characters has a mental illness. Now, as someone who knows people with that illness, and someone who has read a LOT about that illness, and talked with others whose loved ones have it, I feel cheated by the way this novel treats the illness.
The author both exaggerates and diminishes the illness. I cannot claim to know all the different manifestations of the illness, but I know enough about it to feel the character in the novel is not behaving exactly as this mental illness is usually manifested. Nor do the caregivers around him seem to be treating him the way caregivers of this illness should (they allow him to transgress even when he’s not having an episode and behave really strangely when he is having one). What’s also weird is that they talk about how destructive the illness is to the person and those surrounding him, by focusing on the extremes that could happen, without recognizing how the micromanifestations of it have regular impact on loved ones. And one other character treats the whole thing as if it’s nothing (and not in a good way; in a kind of dismissive way).
It made me realize that if I don’t know the author and don’t know the illness, I would not know how credible the author’s representation of the illness is. And that’s dangerous, because it can reproduce social misunderstandings of mental illness, and it’s a big deal. It’s a big deal if people start talking about this illness based on impressions from fiction and think that’s what it is.
This all reminded me of the opposite situation. David Mathew, (who’s the editor of the Journal of Pedagogic Development, and a good friend) is also a novelist (his latest novel is Ventriloquists, which i got via Kindle Unlimited but have not started yet) and I was recently talking to him about how his study of psychiatry and his experience with prisoners all must really inform his fiction writing. It makes it much more credible to me. But I don’t know every novelist whose books I read. And i don’t know how much research or personal experience they have had with what they’re writing about. I sometimes research things that interest me, but I am sure there is a lot that I don’t and that I absorb uncritically, because, you know, I am reading the book at 2am or on a plane or to take a break from “work” or listening on audio while doing housework. Book clubs are great for helping one question certain things in novels, and I sometimes hold bookclubs with myself 🙂 But anyway…
Yeah. Mental illness. Please don’t write novels about it if you don’t really know what you’re talking about. Thanks.