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5 July 2019

“Schizophrenia terrifies”: how Esmé Weijun Wang broke the last taboo of mental illness

The Whiting Award-winning author discusses illness, social media and her new memoir The Collected Schizophrenias. 

By Hettie O'Brien

Of all the details in the American writer Esmé Weijun Wang’s new book, the most striking is how the typically haunting features of schizophrenia — the voices in one’s head, the psychiatric hospital — are less terrifying than the prospect of losing control of your mind in a world that reveres cognitive capital. Society seems more sensitive than ever to mental health, the term “anxiety” so ubiquitous that it’s either become void of meaning or worryingly widespread. But schizophrenia still terrifies. 

At one point in Wang’s memoir The Collected Schizophrenias, she describes the murder of Malcoum Tate, a 34-year-old man diagnosed with schizophrenia who was killed in North Carolina in 1988 by his sister. She shot him 13 times in the head while their mother waited in the car. 

“When I think about this murder, I think about how excessive 13 shots is,” Wang writes. “I also think about how a man who loomed over your bed in the middle of the night, a man who claimed to be sent by God to kill your daughter, might seem like a man possessed by evil, and therefore capable of anything, including surviving multiple gunshot wounds — even if you loved him, or still do”. 

There’s no amount of positive thinking, mindfulness, exercise or motivational quotes on sunset backgrounds that can remedy schizophrenia — it refuses to be assuaged like anxiety or depression. “Depression is often compared to diabetes — in other words, it’s not your fault if you get it, and you’ll be fine if you just take care of it. Schizophrenia, on the other hand, is compared to Alzheimer’s — it’s still not your fault if you get it, but there’s no fixing it,” Wang writes. 

I recently met Wang at The Hoxton hotel in London during her visit from San Francisco where she lives with her husband of ten years. It was one of the first hot days in June and sunlight glimmered on the sofa where we sat for coffee. Wang now walks with a stick, a symptom of late-stage Lyme disease, but you wouldn’t guess she was seriously ill. Her hair was closely cropped in an ice-blonde pixie cut and she wore a red embroidered dress and red lipstick. Her book, likewise, describes a costume that belies sickness: to the clinic she wears a brown silk dress, Chanel foundation and organic moisturiser that smells “like bananas and almonds”. 

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References to an Ivy-league education — she attended Yale, which she found deaf to mental illness, before transferring to Stanford — punctuate the book. Wang was diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder eight years after experiencing her first hallucinations, and writes that she fears being “lumped in with the screaming man on the bus, or the woman who claims that she’s the reincarnation of god”. Signifiers like clothing and curriculum vitae denote her presence in a social world where schizophrenia doesn’t belong.

After publication of Wang’s 2016 novel The Border of Paradise, she was named a Best Young American Novelist by Granta, which creates the list once per decade. She received a Whiting Award the following year. “I might not need to name drop Yale as much as I used to, but now I’m a New York Times bestselling author. As long as I feel anxious about needing to prove myself as somebody who has a very serious mental health diagnosis, I will feel as though I need to defend myself,” she says.

It’s a feeling one can empathise with regardless of any history of serious mental illness. “A capitalist society values productivity in its citizens above all else, and those with severe mental illnesses are much less likely to be productive in ways considered valuable,” Wang writes in a chapter entitled “High-Functioning”. In our post-industrial economy, mental faculties have their own particular currency. 

For writers, in particular, ideas are coinage, published as instant reactions on Twitter or worked up into longer articles. A psychiatric hierarchy decrees that anxiety can be a source of nervous energy and useful caution, while the creative genius associated with madness is “primarily linked to depression or bipolar disorder,” Wang writes. Schizophrenia doesn’t feature. The concept of losing one’s mind, rather than momentarily losing control, has a terrifying resonance.

One of the essays in the book was written while Wang was experiencing a strain of psychosis known as “Cotard’s delusion” during which a patient believes they are dead. “It helped me survive,” she tells me of writing the chapter, which was preserved in a near-original state. Wang lists biographical facts: “I am Esmé… I have been married since 2009… My birthday is June 8”, and you feel she’s at sea, grasping for an anchor. But despite her confession of madness, the chapter feels measured. Like the rest of Wang’s book, it’s a cleanly crafted depiction of psychosis that is similar in effect to her wardrobe: a controlled disguise that validates Wang’s status as a talented writer, even when chaos reigns in her head. 

As a personal memoir of mental illness, one might expect The Collected Schizophrenias to be more explicit or sensationalist. “I wanted to be able to establish my control over the material,” Wang said. Her book eschews the conventions of the intensely personal essay, a genre that emerged several years ago and was ideally suited to contracting editorial budgets (narrating one’s own experiences is cheaper than reporting others’) and the attention economy (clicks flow to the uncensored and outrageous). The algorithms and feedback loops of Facebook and Twitter reward authenticity and encourage the negotiation of thorny subjects before a baying crowd. For female writers, in particular, parting with one’s intimate secrets has become a journalistic elixir. 

Wang could no doubt have mined her experience for extraordinary anecdotes, but the parameters of her book are tightly controlled. Her husband is referred to as “C.” throughout, his first name only revealed in the acknowledgements section. When Wang writes of a former relationship with a partner who raped her and was subsequently convicted and imprisoned for possessing child pornography, the experience is alluded to but never fully elaborated. 

I asked her about this decision. “When I first turned in my draft of that essay to my editor, he made notes on it, and next to the part where I’m writing about the rape, he made a note and said, you don’t really describe the rape”. Rather than fully recounting the experience, Wang addresses her decision not to disclose it in her book. “I don’t chronicle the rape, because to do so feels like testifying before the reader”. 

Despite her diagnosis, or perhaps because of it, Wang is prolific on social media, a place that actively distorts reality and measures one’s validity in likes and follower counts. “Because I didn’t have the capacity to socialise or interact with people face-to-face, I would turn to Twitter in order to socialise — and to get that kind of interaction with other people”. While writing about her commitment to a psychiatric ward, Wang laments that there are “no computers”. When she locks herself in a cupboard in tears, she texts her friend. 

The dramatis personae of social media are self-consciously crafted characters who speak in unmistakably online voices. Wang, too, is knowing in her self-presentation — she shares an intensely personal story, but is careful not to expose too much. 

Yet The Collected Schizophrenias is nothing like the digital flotsam that washes up on the internet. That the book took five years to write shows; its thoughtful, vivid prose has been carefully worked upon, each word precisely chosen: testament to an experience that demands to be heard.

The Collected Schizophrenias was published on 27 June by Penguin.

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