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Arifa Akbar: We've come a long way since the 'madwoman in the attic': week in books


For a long time, the mentally ill were dumb and mute in literature. Inarticulacy surrounded those lumped together as Bedlamites: Jane Eyre’s classic “madwoman” in the attic, for instance, served as little more than a plot device, a thing to fear and loathe that got in the way of a Gothic romance.

Since then, mental illness has acquired its own peculiar romance. Maybe Kierkegaard started it with his theory linking creativity with anxiety. The link persists today – and it is sometimes difficult to distinguish neuroscience that finds obscure cortical connections between mental instability and creativity from pop psychology and even prejudice. I’m not sure how definitive these scientific findings are, or if they do anything other than reinforce the idea of the mentally ill as “Other” – just rather special with it.

Which is one of the reasons why Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest resonated so deeply in the 1960s. He asked: “Who is sicker: the mentally ill patient or the medical science around mental-illness?” Fifty years on, we are seeing writers like Nathan Filer, the Costa award-winner, deconstructing the myths around mental illness to reveal its sad, poignant and sometimes funny realities. His debut novel, The Shock of the Fall, is a tragicomic look at a 19-year-old’s descent into schizophrenia.

Part of this deconstruction also involves the dismantling of the Van Gogh myth that mental torment and genius is necessarily linked – the same myth that suggests that Virginia Woolf and Sylvia Plath wrote so well because they had access to a deeper truth, and a clearer sense of beauty, living on their higher plain for the “unhinged”. This distasteful view even sanctions their suicides. They couldn’t live with the shallow duplicities of this world, it seems to suggest.

Since Jane Eyre, we have been re-told the story from the perspective of Rochester’s wife. Many more contemporary stories of mental illness have been, and are being, written as non-fiction and memoir rather than as fiction though. A powerful father-and-son memoir came in 2011 with the Costa-shortlisted Henry’s Demons, written by Patrick Cockburn and his schizophrenic son, which chapter by chapter revealed what Henry felt, the threats he saw in the world and why he behaved as he did, before it switched back to his father’s narrative. A more recent book is The Reason I Jump, written by Naoki Higashida, who was 13 – and autistic – when he wrote his raw account of living with autism.

This month, Barbara Taylor’s book The Last Asylum: A Memoir of Madness in our Times, will take us on a journey through the psychiatric health care system (and to the one-time “lunatic asylum” where she herself was a patient); a collection called Falling into the Fire: A Psychiatrist’s Encounters with the Mind in Crisis by Christine Montross, will bring us Oliver Sacks-style stories of detained in-patients.

Filer is doing something different, though.

He is not just documenting mental illness but shedding light, creatively, on what happens inside the life and mind of his schizophrenic character, not unlike Mark Haddon’s imaginative inhabiting of an Asperger’s child in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. Perhaps others are not yet ready to broach the subject of mental illness creatively. Perhaps they anticipate charges of inauthenticity. Whatever the reason, it makes Filer and his novel all the more unusual, and audacious.


Moving to the sounds of a good story

Some years ago I spoke to Alastair Campbell about his novel, Maya, and I remember scoffing silently when he told me he wrote some of it on the treadmill (using a Blackberry). Visions of Bill Murray wrestling with gym equipment in Lost in Translation came to mind. How wrong it was of me to laugh. Campbell was following an age-old tradition that connects movement to storytelling – and story-making. Joyce Carol Oates has long sung the praises of her daily runs for unknotting novelistic problems, and several others have revealed how the imaginative muscle also benefits from the meditative movement of a swift jog or walk. So it is very appropriate that the Serpentine Gallery has commissioned the Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie to compile an audio walk, in which visitors can walk and listen to Adichie’s story of an “awakening”.