Demons in the Age of Light by Whitney Robinson

This post originally appeared on I Read Odd Books

Book: Demons in the Age of Light: A Memoir of Psychosis and Recovery

Author: Whitney Robinson

Type of Book: Non-fiction, memoir, mental illness, psychiatry

Why Do I Consider This Book Odd: In a way it is not odd because psychiatric memoirs are thick on the ground these days. But in a sense this book is very odd because being given an invitation to look into the mind of a person actively suffering from schizophrenia is in and of itself a strange, unsettling experience.

Availability: Published by Process Media in 2011, you can get a copy here:

Comments: Just warning you now, dear reader, that this discussion is going to be one of my trademarked Very Long Discussions with Lots of Quotes from the Book, coupled with a very personal reactions to the text. For those who find a 8000 word or so discussion excessive, here is the tl;dr version: This is a very good book written by a very good writer and you should buy it and read it.

I read a lot of mental health and mental illness memoirs and this was the first one I ever considered odd enough to discuss here. I very nearly missed reading it. I had run into a spate of memoirs that left me cold, and had the online acquaintance who recommended the book to me and then sent me a copy offered it two weeks earlier than she did, I would have declined. But just before she discussed the book with me, I had finished a very good, very honest mental illness memoir, Stacy Pershall’s Loud in the House of Myself: Memoir of a Strange Girl. The offer to read the book came at the right time after the right book.

It would have been a shame to have turned down this book because of the often sorry shelf-company it is forced to share. And I don’t mean to demean the genre because people gets all kinds of help in all kinds of ways that I may find less than helpful. It’s just that lately some of the books I have read wore very thin for me. It seemed like the authors, mostly women, had romanticized their illness. To paraphrase Elizabeth Wurtzel, patron saint of fucked up women of a certain age, they had fallen in love with their illness. The devastation the disease wreaked on their bodies, their education, their relationships – it all was a back story to a fabulous disaster narrative.

Also there is a current theme in mental health studies that posits that mental illnesses, or neurodiversity, are a form of genetic selection for arts, letters and speculative science and therefore celebrate the conditions. I can see the logic. Not only is there a long record of acclaimed people who created great art and propelled science, but as a person with mental illness, I like to think that there is a purpose behind my at times terrible brain chemistry. But I am made uneasy by some of it because even though Van Gogh left behind astonishing paintings and Virginia Woolf left behind masterful prose and John Nash was a great boon to speculative physics, would any of us really want to live their lives? It’s all well and good to see the up side of having appalling brain chemistry, but I often fear that people who are suffering will read such examinations and decide that their affliction should not be treated, should not be seen as a disease that needs to be addressed in order for them to live the best life they can live. As much as I adore Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poetry, and I have no real way of knowing how much his deep depression truly affected his writing, thinking about the sorry end of his life makes it just a little harder to enjoy the beauty and truth of his words. Art that comes from a truly suffering person will always have a pall cast over it.

This book does not engage in the sort of celebration and art uber alles justifications for mental illness that I have encountered as of late. Whitney Robinson’s memoir gets everything right. She shows the wreckage. She shows how mental illness swooped down into her life and changed everything. A natural writer with a near-intimidating intelligence, Robinson tells the story of her illness, the demon that came into her brain, and how she came back out the other side. It is an erudite, honest, and at times darkly humorous look at what it feels like to have your brain behave in ways you have no control over. Schizophrenia is one of the hardest mental illnesses for people to truly understand, and Robinson writes a fascinating book that is never once a freak show. It is never an attempt to glorify conditions that can ransack a person’s life. This book is never a voyeuristic peephole into the at times salacious subject matter of mental illness.

It is a rare invitation to understand.

I don’t suffer from schizophrenia, but a voice in my head landed me in a locked psych ward when the voice told me, in very specific detail, to kill myself. I had been given medication that made me psychotic, and once my mind cleared from the toxic influence, it seemed hard to believe that such a thing had happened to me. Surely I had not heard a voice talking to me, a voice that sounded so much like my own, a voice I could converse with. But it happened. Luckily my husband prevented the worst from happening, and I don’t think such a thing will ever happen to me again.

But even taking all of that into account, I was shocked at how much this book seemed at times like it was speaking directly to me: the weight gain from the medications, the change in how her family regarded her, a sickening suspicion that even as she respected her psychiatrist, he may not know the best way to handle her illness. And though almost all mental health memoirs can make a reader wonder if they have the specific affliction discussed in the book, Robinson’s narrative at times gave me pause because some of my mental glitches showed up in her prose. It was unsettling at times, actually.

Robinson, who is still in her 20s, grew up in rural Massachusetts, a much-loved little girl with atypical parents. Her father she describes as an eco-fascist, her mother an artistic Christian. She was home schooled and lived a relatively solitary existence until her teens. It is hard to know if schizophrenia showed early signs in some of her childhood behaviors, like her tendency to collect small animals into glass jars without regard for their capacity to survive the experience, but I think such attempts to backtrack are ultimately futile. Many children interact oddly with animals when very young and it is something they grow out of. Robinson grew out of it, but the impact of her innocent collections haunted her later, causing her to to think herself a monster in the depths of her illness.

Robinson began attending her freshman year of college just as schizophrenia really began to take hold of her mind. She withdraws into a strange existence that leads to two psychiatric hospitalizations. Robinson’s attempt to make sense of her disease using the intellectual arsenal available to her – philosophy and religion – lead her to call the voice that plagues her mind a demon, though she certainly does not see it as a demonic possession, as some might infer from the title. And she never once shies away from telling hard truths about herself, using a prose style that seems at odds with her youth, but like I said earlier, Robinson is a natural writer.

Robinson was an unusual little girl but she rang utterly true to me in some respects. Here is an early passage in the book. Robinson was at a body of water near her home, capturing some sort of amphibian in a bucket when a man began to speak to her in an alarming manner. Robinson, still a little girl when this happened, somehow sensed the man meant her harm and she instinctively ran from him. But that survival instinct was tempered by a strange affinity to darkness:

Did he want to kill me? A delicious shudder ran through my body. Here was my Dr. Lecter, the closest thing I might ever have. It was late at night, when I found my first love object. My friend asleep beside me on a cot that smelled like cat pee, the television playing out the terrifying and blessed confirmation that I was not alone in seeing the world as I did, full of words like scalpels and jars of eyes and freezers full of human hearts. Sometimes I’d wonder, what if I’d been born into a different body, cast into a different life? What if I’d not been a little girl with golden hair whose mother read her fairy tales? What if I’d been a boy with crooked teeth and a slimy nose, a bastard child no one wanted? What if I’d had an excuse.

That fascination with very bad men, the desire to be both harmed and to be a person who harms is something I am uneasily familiar with. My first love objects were Ted Bundy, whom I saw as a force set to obliterate feminine beauty, and Clint Eastwood, an icy-eyed assassin who meted hard justice. At its core, this fascination with darkness for me was and still is a strange desire to obliterate myself combined with a need to know that if I must, I can do harm. Of course, like the author, I have no excuse to be a person who does harm, which makes the fascination with bad people all the more unsettling.

There were moments, however, when even though I felt a strong kinship to Robinson, her mind showed itself wholly unlike mine. Rather unique, really. These are Robinson’s thoughts as she is getting ready to go out on a first date with her college lab partner:

Don’t get me wrong, I want to form some meaningful connection with the people around me… It’s just that talk across genders forms expectations and bodies are a problem for me. Pale, quivering sacks of blood and bones – they do not compel me to perpetuate the species, or pretend to. Animals have poetry in their shape and motion, but people never really stop looking half-formed, still fetal, even as they begin to decay. There are many words in English for dead bodies, yet none to distinguish one that is specifically alive. I think that’s telling.

I think it might be tempting to file this interesting passage under the tab of “she was becoming ill.” I don’t think that is accurate. What I think this shows is that Robinson would have had a very interesting mind even had she not developed schizophrenia. It is not her illness that makes her sui generis. The illness gave her the topic and focus to write this book but the way she processed being ill is indicative of the mind she had before she fell ill. But the atypical way of looking at the world was there all along, I think. The little girl who captured animals and kept them in jars did so because they had a certain poetry to her and she grew into the woman who linguistically found support for her idea of humans as half-formed. That is the power of this particular narrative – Robinson’s mind never becomes secondary to her disease even as she expresses ideas many would consider odd or strange.

The date does not go as well as Robinson would have hoped, though Scott, the lab partner, as later evidence in the book shows, is clearly smitten with her. Robinson’s conversation over coffee shows her interests to be quite different than those of other people, or at least the very normal, seemingly average boy sitting in front of her.

“The only blood and guts I like are in zombie movies, and I’m pretty sure that stuff is all fake.”

“Actually, it’s probably pig viscera, too. Pigs are physiologically similar to humans. You can even fool the experts sometimes. Like snuff films, you know, where they supposedly kill someone on camera? There have been a lot of fakes, Some were so convincing that the FBI got involved, but they were uncovered as staged in the end. I think it turned out that the blood and guts were mostly from pigs.”

Scott is looking at me oddly. “And you know this how?

“I dunno, some documentary on the Internet? Haven’t you seen it?”

“Actually, no,” he says, and I realize that snuff films are one of those subjects you are supposed to avoid on the first date.

Again, I appreciated how much of Robinson’s mind I got to see reading this book. Because even though this is a mental illness memoir, it is also Robinson’s memoir of being a highly intelligent, awkward girl. It is the awkward, intelligent girl having this conversation, not the demon-plagued young woman. That is what made this memoir so appealing – commonality with this unusual mind, unusual even without illness. As Mr Oddbooks can attest, there are many young women who do not avoid such subject matter on a first date.

It is subtle, how Robinson lets you into her unusual mind and then slowly begins to show you the disease. If you have ever wanted to read clearly what it feels like to have schizophrenia, Robinson will show you. This next passage occurs when the disease is really making itself known to Robinson. Her mother has rousted her from her college apartment to force her to go to the dentist, and the experience she has in the waiting room is horrific. This also shows some of Robinson’s dry and at times dark humor.

I grab an issue of Highlights for Children and take a seat. Inside, I find a garden in which thirteen butterflies are hidden.

Can you find the butterflies?

Can, or will die trying.

But the butterflies begin to take on strange meaning to Robinson as her illness causes her to begin to misperceive her environment.

A shadow passes across the hallway door, gone by the time I look up. Maybe it was my imagination, but the figure that crossed my peripheral vision seemed furtive and distorted. It might have been carrying some kind of sharp instrument. Possibly one with a gleaming metal blade. Something in the room seems to curdle. The receptionist clacks at her keyboard with her back to me. The tapping has an unsettling rhythm, mathematically wrong. I am fairly certain that if she turns around she will have no face. I glance warily down at the magazine. They are liars; there are only twelve butterflies. The last butterfly is a fabrication to make small children go insane. The fish tank gurgles in amusement, a wet, choking sound.

This scene make my skin prickle because I have moments of strange paranoia and begin to perceive things that are not there. I will see strange connections in books to specific events in my life and will become convinced that my husband knew of the links when he gave me the book. When the strange cloud passes, I can see how irrational I was, but in the middle of one of the episodes nothing can convince me otherwise. I’ll develop strange aversions to textures, seeing lunar surfaces on pizzas, recurring faces in brick patterns and sponges, and then it goes away. I read this and could feel the uneasiness and fear Robinson experienced as she realized there may be meaningful pattern to the typing, that the book was deliberately misleading children. That there was a sinister purpose behind it all. And if you have never had moments like this happen in a sober brain, this passage is an excellent step in beginning to understand certain brain misfires.

I have no idea how much of the carelessness and at times deliberate violence Robinson exhibited toward animals was affected by or caused by her mental illness, but I can say her experiences in this regard were uncomfortable to read. As I have mentioned before, I cannot abide cruelty to animals and cannot read about it. But I forced myself to power through it and read sections that upset me because this was not just some attempt at a gross-out. Rather, reading about Robinson’s actions with animals was important to understanding this book and her illness.

In her teens, after watching a movie about Jeffrey Dahmer, Robinson decides to kill a fish. She and a friend had an unspoken competition as to who would obtain the most exotic and pretty betta fish. Her friend had bested her and obtained a lovely fish and full of a strange anger, Robinson decides that if she cannot possess the fish, no one will possess it. She spills a bottle of perfume into the bowl:

The perfume spread through the water in a floral atom bomb cloud, and the fish ricocheted from corner to corner in search of safer waters. After a minute it hung listlessly, fins trailing down in ragged strings. Gradually it began to list to one side until finally it floated on the surface of the water, its lovely fins fanned out like flower petals, now translucent and drained of color. The gills were motionless, dilated and bloodshot, and it soon became clear it was dead.

[…]

Dizzied by a sudden vertigo, it seemed like there were physically two of me in the room and my perspective was trapped between them, a bodiless observer torn between possible selves. One of these creatures was filled with a terrible sadness and the other blazed with savage joy, and I could not have said which one was real.

It seems as if the dark other, the demon that comes to haunt Robinson’s mind, is present, if not understood, long before her diagnosis. As I read this, I recalled once reading about people with forms of OCD who overcompensate because they are certain they are destructive or a killer in disguise. There can be a fine line between those who pour perfume into the fish bowl and those who do all they can to avoid even reading about those who pour perfume into the fish bowl. The voice in her mind brings up over and over all the things that Robinson believes she is – a killer, a torturer, and someone to be feared. Despite her collections of animals in jars and killing the fish, I do not believe Robinson’s schizophrenia fuels cruelty. Rather, I think her fascination with cruelty when twisted by the demonic voice of her illness becomes something far more sinister than it was.

Here’s a passage wherein Robinson did nothing wrong but the disease twists her mind into thinking she is a person capable of doing grave harm. This passage comes from when she babysat some children when she was a teenager. One of the children pretended to be dead and Robinson’s brain went to a place wherein the child was really dead and she was responsible, a dark fantasy of herself as a killer.

The girl who was supposed to be keeping them safe locked herself in the bathroom and confronted a demon that happened to look exactly like herself. She called out for the children to go to bed, and for once they listened. She waited for headlights in the driveway, collected her twenty dollars, and never went back.

It was then that she… that I began to consider the morality of my continued existence. Clearly there was something fundamentally broken in me – in whatever way the brains or souls of Charles Manson and Jeffrey Dahmer were missing some key element, I seemed to have been set down similarly unfinished, a half-formed clay fetish that was animated with the breath of life and the power of speech but not fully human. There were moments when I felt empathy and sorrow and perhaps even love, but they flitted in and out of their own accord – I could not call them up at appropriate times, and in most situations I found inside me only an unsettling blankness, or sometimes the opposite of what I ought to feel. Wires had crossed somewhere, that much was clear.

She contemplates suicide but without meaning to, she finds a salvation of sorts in animals, for they see her by her actions, not the contents of her mind:

It came to me then that as far as this horse was concerned, I was a blank slate. Just one of a dozen teenage girls who rode him in circles each week. I hadn’t yanked on his mouth and now I was possibly going to give him a carrot, so life was good. He didn’t see me as a dangerous carnivore, he didn’t smell the ferment of evil in my blood or psychically sense my black thoughts. His entire concept of me was predicated on how I had treated him so far, a contract extending into indefinite future.

I feared what was going to happen next, that perhaps Robinson was going to harm the horse, but she is not a monster – just a young woman with mental illness:

I finishing untacking the horse, fed him a carrot, curried his sweaty saddle spot, and shut him safely in his stall for the night. I went home and did not shoot myself with my father’s guns. It seemed like I could still feel the horse’s eyes on me, calm and trusting. All of literature’s meditations on redemption might not have convinced me that my soul was salvageable, but in the wordless gaze of an animal who knew not my sins, nor cared of them, I found some sort of peace.

Robinson ends up under the care of a dedicated psychiatrist, and under his care Robinson goes psychotic and slashes her arms. She ends up in a psychiatric ward and feels the same sort of… relief? blankness? that I felt when the drugs began to come in ever increasing dosages and the voice that was mine yet was not mine went away:

To have a drug encamped in one’s brain is not so wrong as having another ego there. It acts with no malice, no free will. I close my eyes and am not so sad to have lost my mind. If I can’t have it, no one should.

This was very interesting to me. Her brain, the fish – her life is a black and white slate of possession. It’s almost too tempting to jump from her desire to possess her mind to her decision to regard the voice symptom of her schizophrenia as a demon. But that’s exactly where my mind went when I read this.

I suspect that in addition to the sheer appeal of Robinson’s prose, I loved this book because it was the first time I think I have read anyone whose hospitalization experiences seemed like mine, or at least mirrored elements of how the experience went down for me.

Though my first instinct is to struggle and flail and shatter things until I am free, I force myself to remain calm, not give them further proof that I’m part of the natural scenery of this milieu. Besides, whatever they’ve given me has possibly had some sort of toxic effect on the… thing. The voice. Don’t give it a persona. The disease of mind.

I swallow the pills.

Yes, I took the pills and they made the voices stop almost immediately, but I was still shaky and afraid. And, yes, this is exactly how I got out of inpatient as quickly as I did. I  realized that normal to those people in charge meant disengaged, quiet, unaffected, and I took enough drugs to fell an elephant and told the psychiatrist I wanted out so I could vote. A brief political conversation followed, she agreed to let me go home as soon as she could arrange the paperwork (voting and civic duty evidently seemed extremely sane to her). I think many of us fake it until we are released.

Robinson has a startling clarity of how she sounds and reacts, an awareness that I had and that I think many would never suspect the deeply mentally ill to possess.

Worse still I’m a biased narrator here, with a vested interest in sounding rational and far more clever than reductionist doctors with Mafia-dark eyes and dark suits worth more than my soul. Maybe I’m not as smooth and logical as I’m trying to sound, maybe my syntax isn’t as crisp as all that and my voice is lost among my words. Maybe I sound like every other frightened mental patient…

I was acutely aware of how I looked and sounded. I don’t like remembering it. It is very dehumanizing to have a sense of your sanity but know there is no way anyone will hear you because you are Mentally Ill.

And just more of the shocking commonality of experiences…

I had thought my release would be momentous, the free world rushing back to greet me as the vault doors open like the hold of a submarine. But once I’m outside, the return of normal context makes me realize how abnormal I feel inside. I had hoped this might be solved with clove cigarettes, poetry, and strolls in a peaceful garden. A civilized nineteenth century rest cure. Not with horse tranquilizers and unspeakable labels that start with schizo.

Once I was out of the hospital I had a brief, charmed existence because I was so happy to be out. But nothing had changed, really, except I was full of chemicals that would later become their own horrible problem to be dealt with, and people all regarded me differently. I too had some sort of belief in the idea of a sedate, Victorian rest, but really the locked ward was a place wherein no one could sleep, constant noise would have made the completely sane edgy and everyone was freaked out as their med doses changed. One of the nurses had told me to look at it like a vacation. Others cooked my meals, so I guess it was a rest in that regard. Sort of…

And here’s the passage that made me worry that these commonalities render me unable to see the whole of this book as others see it but I also know that these common experiences show me the truth of her life in a way that some may miss. This somewhat funny passage as Robinson returns to the hospital for the second time could have come from own hand:

“What are you reading?” asks the nurse, glancing down at the book after I’ve emptied my pockets and relinquished my Swiss Army knife, which I’d forgotten was there.

Twilight of the Idols,” I tell her.

“My girlfriend said those books are good, but I’m not really into vampires.”

“Neither was Nietzsche, as far as I know.”

The nurse shuffles through my chart. “Are you hallucinating now, Whitney?”

“Um, no…” These admittance conversations are always uncomfortably direct, and one never manages to answer poetically.

“Do you feel like hurting yourself or someone else?”

“No.”

“What’s written on your shoes?”

“Words to live by.”

“I’m afraid I need to take them. The laces.”

“What about them?”

“They could be dangerous.”

“Because they’re long enough to choke someone?”

The nurse doesn’t answer, just waits while I take off my shoes and hand them over.

I hated having to give up my shoe laces. I also had to pull the drawstrings out of my hoodie and my sweatpants. But then again, a girl found a way to pull her shower curtain down and tried to hang herself with it so I can see why they take away all things that can be used as a strangulation device. But as Robinson shows in her memoir, when her roommate tries to kill herself using a CD, there is no way to prevent all the ways people can kill themselves. I had my own Twilight moment, as well. I was reading Stuart Kelly’s The Book of Lost Books, an historical bibliography of books that have been lost to history. A nurse asked me what the book was about and I told her.

“How do they even know about them if the books were lost?” she asked, with near contempt in her voice.

“Other writers and historians read and referenced the books before they were lost,” I explained.

Referenced,” she replied, as if the word was somehow a curse word.

Shoe laces and nurses who don’t get our books…

People who know that I often write down “take a shower” on my list of things to do will understand why I so liked this passage explaining life when Robinson is out of the hospital for the second time:

Each day, I write down a series of small tasks to be performed: Buy groceries, make dinner, twenty pushups, fold the laundry. It seems vulgar to break one’s life down into a series of mundane accomplishments – surely everyone of consequence has lived a continuous and poetic existence, no need for daily goal sheets – but it succeeds in filling the hours so that each one passes relatively smoothly into the next, so maybe I have learned something from my Life Skills Training after all.

There is something heady about being a person who just one week/month/year ago was so ill that I had to be in a mental ward and being the person who can now write a list with a pen on paper and cross items out. It seems mundane, or “vulgar” as Robinson puts it, but appealing nonetheless in the face of potential disruption.

And even when there was no commonality of experience, there was Robinson’s astonishing story-telling skills (and the “he” in this passage is the voice, the demon):

In my room, I face the surrounding walls with the intensity of an FBI agent sizing up a group of murder suspects. But the one will not confess its secret, and the others will not capitulate and give up the fourth wall. There is a charge in the air now that tells me he could say something if he wanted to. This, perhaps, should signal me to take another pill, diffuse the potential. But maybe it’s better to have a mind and an adversary than to be empty and alone. It seems to be a question of Which is Worse from those girly magazines Alexis is so fond of. Hair in your food or food in your hair? To burn alive or suffocate in silence? I don’t remember that one in Seventeen.

I did not stay on the sorts of drugs Robinson was put on for very long, but I do know that so many who have prefer not to take them report that it was better to burn alive than suffocate in silence. People who have never ingested anything like Geodon, Risperdal or Clorazil have no idea how much more preferable it is to be completely mad than to be completely numb, unable to think, living mentally in a block of ice. Such people wonder why those who have severe mental conditions stop taking their medications, as if it is some sort of perversity that makes people choose mental illness over the treatment. But it’s indeed because it is better to have a mind than to be empty.

I think Robinson wholly won me over with this next passage because while it may seem like she is engaging in the sort celebration of mental illness that I find worrisome, she isn’t:

They say that mental problems plague philosophers. John Stuart Mills had a nervous breakdown around my age, and Nietzsche spent most of his twilight in an institution. But maybe this isn’t permanent, just an object lesson of a breakdown. Maybe I can still go to one of those old-fashioned asylums where you write in a journal in a walled garden until you are well enough to join the world. And then I’ll become a thinker, a writer, something of value. I’ll justify my existence somehow.

This is not a trainwreck celebration of the artistic side of mental illness. Rather it is the attempt of a young woman in dire mental straits to find some meaning in what is happening to her, an escape hatch wherein she can find purpose despite her illness. I cringe when people tell me I have an artistic personality because what it means is that I have so many strange mental issues that they assume all my creative endeavors are fueled by my mental tics. The truth is that anything I manage to do I manage in spite of my brain chemicals, not because of them. I may know the mental conditions that plague every artist I admire, but I suspect they justified their existences as well, rather than deifying the chemicals that often interrupted their flow, their fire, their talent.

But as I mention several times throughout this discussion, Robinson is a gifted writer, borne from an astonishing intellect. In this passage, she is speaking to her psychiatrist, Dr. Caspian, who is trying very hard to get her the sort of help he think she needs but she uses her intense intellectualism to process what is happening to her in a disturbing way:

“Well, the other day there was an incident that troubled me. While I was sitting in my philosophy lecture, I was overwhelmed by the certainty that I would truly be able to see if and only if I cut out my eyes. Except don’t worry, I’m not quite that far gone. But he likes vivid images and desires to make them actual. It’s an aesthetic thing, he’s hopeless that way. Yet I’m not sure if it was he or my body itself that willed this action so deeply. It felt obligatory, like I had to do it, as opposed to supererogatory, which is just like a nice thing to do. But it wasn’t so much a matter of deciding what is morally right, but an overwhelming knowledge of what I needed to do next, combined with the physical sensation of being choked by some sinister plant. It reminded me of the categorical imperative, which, um, Immanuel Kant developed as a formula to determine right action.”

This passage is important because this is such a fine example of Robinson’s invitation to understand. Her description of her mind as she discusses the philosophical importance behind the voice telling her to cut out her eyes is… Well, it’s unsettling to see such potential for harm made sense of. Or perhaps this won’t make sense to you and it is a sign of how my mind works that this makes perfect sense to me.

During another argument with the well-meaning Dr. Caspian,Whitney demands to label her experience as she sees fit, even as her brain shows how all over the place she is:

“Yeah, I’ve read Occam too, except you probably haven’t. And to be perfectly confessional, neither have I, but that’s beside the point. I get what he was trying to say: Why posit a demon when some faulty wiring will do the trick? But did you ever notice how fond the great minds are of hypothesizing demons? Nietzsche, Descartes, all those physicists. Supposedly they’re just to illustrate, but with so many diverse sightings, might it not be more parsimonious to make them real? All the hypothetical demons existing in some realm of universal truth, drinking their blood-laced wine and playing dice with the universe?

There is such a thin line between when the disease is fueling her intellect and when her intellect is parsing the disease. And I think this is why Dr. Caspian ultimately decides he cannot treat Robinson and refers her to another doctor. There are not many patients who can analyze themselves so clearly and to a doctor who has seen the ravages of the disease, the inability to corral Robinson’s mind in such a way wherein she relinquishes control of her mind had to have been terrifying to him.

I’ve never much cared for Nietzsche but Robinson finds much truth in him:

My demon offers me the world and in return asks only for my soul, that gemlike point of light we imagine lodged in our meat-based hearts, the only thing that’s every really ours to give. And when I offer this, I will be pure, because what is done for love is always done beyond good and evil.

It’s so tempting to argue with this, isn’t it? But if one of the world’s most revered philosophers’ words can so easily be used to describe the bargain in her fractured mind, what exactly is sane and what is not.

Some of the most compelling writing in this book comes when Robinson shows exactly how schizophrenia affects her. Interestingly, this scene happens on the way home from one of the hospital stays, and again, the “he” is the demon, the voice in her head:

On the ride home, the world passing by the window looks like an alien planet. People walking dogs, chasing taxis, striding along with briefcases and self-important airs. Through a tunnel, I see my face reflected in the glass, pale as a cave-dwelling frog with eerily reflective eyes, unreadable even to myself.

What have I done. What can I say? Unless I’m deceived, the girl’s gone gray.

Tell me you do not speak in rhyme now.

No no only when I’m happy. Veryvery happy. Proudly preening on my pretty perch. Prediction is matching up beautifully with the collapse sequence. Barely a trickblur when laid across one another. You’re destined for great things, softsoftsoft as butter.

My head spins with his bright bursts of repetition, helium pitched and unlike anything I have heard from him. Isn’t he angry?

Angry? Certainly not. His voice regains its knife-edge composure.

You came back to me.

What can you even say to something like this when you know it is not fiction?

Robinson shows also the impact the disease has on her family. Holiday gatherings are strange and strained. Her parents seem almost betrayed by her illness, as if it is a referendum on them that their daughter has mental illness. But most of all she shows the strange guilt that comes from realizing that which you cannot control has the potential to harm those around you.

I’m sorry,” I say finally, my eyes still trained on the unicorn fleeing the urban wreckage. Silken and swift and silver they streak, they have galloped through yesterday into next week…

“Sorry for what?” My mother’s eyes search my body for new signs of damage.

I close my eyes. “Everything.”

They have all disappeared to the back of beyond and into the flowering moment of dawn…

“Do you want me to call Dr Caspian?” says my mother, alarmed because I have probably never apologized for anything before. “Do you need to go back to the hospital?”

“No,” I say, taking a few steps back. “I’m fine.”

Buddhists say that certain souls are incarcerated together into families to force each person to confront lessons unlearned in previous lives. I hope my purpose here is not to teach my parents about the pain of attachment, how all things leave us before we are ready to let them go.

That last paragraph broke my heart a little.

Robinson considers her changed relationship with her parents and the world:

The knowledge that I have become a person with whom it is not safe to be alone is like holding some wicked medieval weapon I don’t know how to use, or want to, but can’t set it down. Once you’ve crossed that line of being a danger-to-self-or-others, are you allowed to come back? Is it a painted traffic line you can cross whenever you’ve got the nerve, or does a razor-rimmed fence spring up behind you as soon as you’ve entered the wrong lane.

Here, at least, they give me an excuse for what I’ve become. They say, your brain is broken. These pills, for as long as you take them, will keep you safe. They are vehement: You must take your medication. Your enrollment in the program is contingent on your cooperation. In theory, I agree. Do whatever you must to maintain order. I’ve violated the social contract in the worst possible way, not in action but in mind and in heart. You’ve earned the right to tinker with my chemicals. More to the point, they have made me slow, unimaginative, too literal to be seduced by demons or other creatures of poetry and dreaming. Indeed, I am closer to being an inanimate object than I have ever been in my life.

Being mentally ill and having it manifest as violence against yourself should not be a sign you are dangerous to others, but it is. My roommate at the hospital, upon learning I had attempted suicide (in a particularly bloodless manner, using pills), said, jokingly I think, that she hoped I was not going to hurt her, too. But I eventually rejected the idea that they had the right to continue to experiment in my brain, especially since their experimentation caused the suicide attempt in the first place. Robinson eventually comes to similar conclusions as she exercises her strong will against the demon and engages in therapy that enables her to cope when the unreality of her disease descends upon her. But this passage of how being mentally ill renders a person thing-like, an entity to be controlled rather than a person helped to live, is an important message to those who have never had to make the choice of whether or not they are such a danger to themselves or others that they may have to become a thing to repair the broken societal bonds, bonds that they never meant to break.

But she also shows so clearly why it is she is, at least in her own mind, someone to be feared as a bond-breaker. Take this scene with Scott, the lab partner whom she likes and who likes her. The demon won’t permit her to have a relationship with Scott and reminds her of the worst fears she has about herself.

No, I will not. I will not give in to you. I will grab his hands and kiss him here in the middle of everything. I will fall into his arms as I lose consciousness, and when I wake up, you will be gone.
His eyes are pretty, aren’t they?
They’d look nice in a bottle of formaldehyde.
You could have them to look at whenever
forever
You’re good with a scalpel.

Scott stares at me in alarm as I stumble and claw ineffectually at the base of my throat. I am sure a tentacle of vine is going to burst through my trachea at any moment, like in that movie.

If you know this is what is happening in your brain with a voice that seems like it knows everything about you, how can you really feel safe?

Later Robinson attends church services, and a young priest performs a mild, church prayer sort of exorcism for her. I wondered for a moment if faith was going to save Whitney from her brain, primitive that I can so often be, even as I claim atheism. I genuinely believed for a moment that this might silence the demon.

I stand stupefied before the the stained glass saints, not even pleading. Agnes, holding her lamb, is serene. In my mind, there are lights shining down on a metallic surface and my scalpel is touching a spongy wad of tissue, trembling because I could not separate it from myself in my mind.

Mary had a little lamb,
Its fleece was white as snow
, he burbles as I relive the perforation again and innumerable times again.
And everywhere that Mary went,
The lamb was sure to go.

I never paid enough attention in Sunday school to know whether it’s faith or grace I lack, but I end my stint as a born-again Christian by throwing a piece of baklava against the side of the church. It hits Saint Agnes between the eyes.

But the failure of the tepid exorcism prayer to expel the voice does not mean it is not a demon. Increasingly, I sense that the demonic is too personal to be absorbed into or dealt with using faith.

But there is something to be said for being open to strange or atypical ideas. Robinson attends an alternative health “expo” and views the crystals and amulets and anti-science methodologies on offer, and comes to the following conclusion:

I’ve heard more coherent worldviews expressed in an actual mental hospital, and the Babel of voices surrounding me has the ring of a hundred false prophets crammed into a room that, next weekend, will be full of computer geeks or sadomasochists or aestheticians. I leave for my shamanic healing an hour later with a rose quartz pyramid, a sample of carrot-mangosteen juice, and three books that promise to tell me what this all means, each filtered through their strange, implausible, and yet not perfectly improbable lenses.

I include this passage mainly because I found it amusing and an excellent example of Robinson’s wit and her capacity to see all kinds of truths even as her rational mind finds it strange. Robinson eventually finds a measure of peace with her condition using Eastern medicine and non-traditional therapeutic methods. The girl who asked a priest to exorcise her is the same young woman who explores all avenues available to her, taking a uniquely strong responsibility for her mental health.

Robinson writes a paper about her experiences with schizophrenia and wins first place in a competition, a feat that many would have found impossible for a person with her disease. She is going to be honored in a ceremony and her parents take her shopping for new clothes.

We go out to dinner afterward, to some restaurant with candles melting down the necks of old wine bottles, and little dishes of withered olives on the table. It seems like a fancy sort of place, or maybe I’ve just gotten used to eating from trays. My parents keep telling me how proud they are, but they look perplexed too. I can’t really blame them, because so am I. What was I thinking? I’ve never told anyone, not even Dr. Caspian, some of the things I put in that paper. When my steak comes, it bleeds red juice onto my plate and I hear malicious laughter sizzling in the hot fat. I look down at the knife in my hand, and suddenly I can’t eat a bit. I’ve made a terrible mistake, letting this thing called desire have its way with me. There’s no telling what it will want next, what kinds of dangerous freedoms it will demand.

I cannot imagine the fear she must have felt. To reenter society. To be the girl who, even after having the mettle to write a paper and win an award, still hears malicious laughter from beef fat has to be terrifying. Just another look into her psyche, a short but meaningful look at the brain of a schizophrenic.

Still, that paper is the beginning of better times for Robinson. She manages to find some stable ground and returns to school and sees Scott, the young man who had been so interested in and concerned for her, with a new girlfriend:

I kept my head down as I passed. The world is full of others, after all, and in the end there is only so much we can explain to them when their eyes are so close to ours and so full of reactions, like chemistry sets changing their color and acidity in response to every word. Everything is changing, changing, falling apart, putting itself back together again. Suddenly I’m afraid, and I want to go home. I want to have a disease, to be exempt. If I said I can’t take this, I can never be one of these bright and normal creatures, if I were to collapse and fetally regress and watch the world pass by from a room that still holds too many mementos of childhood, people would understand. It’s shocking how easily everyone accepts excuses from me now. But after all this it just wouldn’t be a very poetic ending, and I don’t know of any better criteria by which I should determine how to live. So in a fairly inconsequential action that nonetheless requires more of me than anything yet, I enter the room and find a seat among my classmates.

Reentering the fray when those around you may know that you are ill is hard. Everyone, even if they are not kind enough to offer you excuses, certainly will not be surprised if you decide to sit life out. People have an idea of what it means to be mentally ill and it has been informed by film, books and other media that paint the most dramatic picture of people who are afflicted. Bipolar girls in mania rushing about in a delicious haze, broken men at the mercy of Nurse Ratched, Angelina Jolie in a New England psychiatric hospital – all images of the disease as it affects people, but no real story of how people deal with their mental illness. We need more memoirs like Robinson’s. We need more people to tell us exactly what mental illness feels like without all the Hollywood trappings that have been assigned to illness. We need more proof that being ill does not mean one cannot learn, live and move about life, that the cure does not mean that the ill suddenly are well, but rather that even the ill can prosper in their own ways as they find their footing and the treatment that gives them the most hope in their own lives. This was one of the best such memoirs I have ever read, with quiet hope, intellectual resolve and a refusal to pander. I cannot recommend it enough.

5 thoughts on “Demons in the Age of Light by Whitney Robinson

  1. “I can never be one of these bright and normal creatures”

    Oh, yes. Yes exactly. That is a perfect description of the sense of alienation that comes with mental illness sometimes.

    I should really read this book. But I might be too busy trying to become a bright and normal creature to find a copy anytime soon.

  2. Sounds like an enchanting book. Did the author ever address how the process of writing itself might have affected his mental condition? Did the act of recording he various symptoms ultimately prove therapeutic – or did the composition of a memoir actually make the situation worse? Did becoming an author heal or harm his psyche?

    1. At no point does Whitney discuss the therapeutic elements of writing aside from the throwaway lines about keeping a journal in a sort of Victorian rest cure perception of being sent to a mental health care hospital. Rather, I suspect that Whitney was an author before she ever had the perception of being mentally ill. I think she is a natural writer and her mental illness was a topic to be explored but I don’t get the feeling that writing it down helped or harmed her one way or the other. These things that happened to her were explored and dealt with in her way before she ever wrote of it. In a way, if I am correct, I think this gave the memoir more clarity and power.

  3. Edited by IROB

    Serenity, I don’t permit advertisements on my blog. Don’t wanna delete you out of hand and certainly don’t want to label this as spam but, yeah, I don’t accept advertisements of this sort, even in the form of comments –Anita

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