Book: A Mind Apart: Travels in a Neurodiverse World
Author: Susanne Antonetta
Type of Book: Non-fiction, psychology, genetics, eugenics
Why Did I Read This Book: As a person who buys books with an almost indiscriminate abandon, I often find books on my “to-be-read” shelves and have little memory of buying them so I am unsure what initially drew me to this book. I read it after I found it when I was searching for a completely unrelated book. I tend to like narratives about mental illness so that was likely why I bought this book.
Availability: Published by Penguin Group in 2007, you can get a copy here:
Comments: Sigh… I think my love of books about mental illness and interesting mental states is pretty well established even though I have not been running this particular book site for even a year yet. I tend to cut books on these topics a lot of slack because people who have unique mental states also have a unique approach to writing. Sometimes you have to dig deep to come away with gems in such books, dealing with odd narrative streams or difficult prose, but more often than not gems are there. I suspect that for many Antonetta’s book has some gems, but overall, I found her narrative not worth all the digging. The structure of the book was often disjointed and rambling to the point that I found myself reading out loud in order to force myself to pay attention, and also to give the words some additional clarity. And worse, I often had no idea, even after reading aloud and concentrating deeply, what it was that Antonetta was trying to convey.
None of this should have been a surprise to me, really, because the first paragraph in the preface tells the reader very clearly that this is not a book written with us in mind, that this is a book that simply exists in its own right and it is our duty to make sense of it however we can.
I am asked, What is this book. And I want to say, Books are like children. They are what they are because they are not something else.
I find this to be the worst sort of speciousness. I suspect this may seem overly harsh, but everything is what it is because it is not something else. Evidently, the appallingly ugly light fixture in my dining room is like a child because it is what is is because it is not something else. And I guess I can say a disjointed, unclear book is a disjointed, unclear book because it is not a well-organized, coherent narrative?
Antonetta, a woman self-described with bipolar disorder, finds comfort discussing aspects of her mental illness with friends and those relationships sustain her. This is not a memoir of mental illness, though the approach is intensely personal and often involves a lot about Antonetta and those she knows. Rather, it is a book that makes assertions about the natural selection involved in mental illness, how the mentally ill may be responsible for shaping a surprising amount of the world, and that any genetic attempts to eliminate people who have mental disorders, autism or similar – the neurodiverse minds among us – could be disastrous for the entire world.
Yet despite this being a book with such a specific theme, the personal descriptions and her personal life were a large part of the book and the descriptions of her mind and the minds of her neurodiverse friends bordered on exotica. Though this is definitely, as Antonetta explains, “a book about different kinds of minds,” it is also a book about minds that call out to be understood in a way that eludes this book. I often felt underwater reading, as so much is hurled at the reader without a context outside of the ideas in Antonetta’s head. Little she says helps enable us to put these unique minds she knows in a thoughtful perspective. For example:
I e-mail N’Lili–who’s a many-head, or a man with different people inside him–up to three or four times a day. They are married to my cousin. I write them separately and together: in response they might say THIS IS US OR THIS IS VICKI OR ANNIE ASKED ME TO ASK YOU SOMETHING, LOVE PEG. WE ARE CHILDREN, they say, though they live in an adult male body
Then there is this:
[Discussing an e-mail with a friend who has Asperger’s] We talk like this a lot. Do you feel the number five is brown? Can you hold it when it comes to you, unassuming in its brownness? How does everyone resist the lusciousness of others’ minds, moving around us, with us, all the time, like a gallery of veiled art.
I think that Antonetta’s approach to her neurodiversity and the neurodiversity of others is a lovely trait. She sees neurodiversity as something that is necessary in life, possibly a function of evolution, providing necessary differing mindsets important to the arts and sciences. But part of this makes me nervous because for every person like N’Lili who functions and embraces his or her dissociative disorder as a form of neurodiversity, there is a woman like my roommate in psych lockdown who is jumping from one consciousness to the other, in a state of terror, unable to work, fearing homelessness and further alienation from her family. For every person who wonders if five is brown, there are people for whom mental illness, or neurodiversity, is a nightmare from which they will never wake.
I know Antonetta knows this fact. She has suffered and still does. And I’m glad she came out the other side with this sort of mindset. But I think I resent the idea that mental illness is a “lusciousness” because for many of us, mental illness is not an evolutionary step in natural selection but is a condition that drags us down and keeps us down. I assert that there is no “normal” mind, and we all have to find our own path through mental illness. But for me, mental illness has prevented me from doing what I want in the world, not served as alternative to regular thinking that enhanced the world around me. I suspect most people who have walked this path tell stories similar to mine.
But it is an interesting thought, that neurodiverse people, exhibit a form of natural selection. That people in the autism spectrum may be uniquely suited to the sciences. That bipolars show an amazing tendency toward producing art and literature. In fact, neurodiverse people may have played some key roles in developing the modern world.
Different minds create new memes, as necessary for the freshening of culture as new genetic combinations are vital to the freshening of the species. Bipolars–“restless and unquiet,” as one correspondent put it–may have helped with the spread of human culture, migrating frequently and often into new territories
Not entirely sure if I buy that but I also don’t know enough evolutionary psychology to argue with it. It’s hard to argue with the idea that diverse mental states create excellent art. It’s almost a cliché. But it’s true in a lot of respects, and Antonetta states outright that she sees the gifts as well as the challenges of mental illness and I respect that. But the examples she gives of bipolar artists is mostly a list of the damned.
The painter van Gogh was bipolar, as were Virginia Woolf, Georgia O’Keefe, Sylvia Plath, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Gioacchino Rossini and hundreds of other artists.
“Spring and Fall, to a Young Child” is one of my favorite poems and it contains the line from poetry I quote most often in my life: “It is the blight man was born for, It is Margaret you mourn for.” But would you really have wanted to have lived Hopkins’ life, with his manias that caused him to dehydrate himself to the point of illness, the deep unipolar horrors that he faced most of his short life? Would you really have wanted to live the lives of either Plath or Woolf, with the anorexia, the suicide attempts, the rages, the final desperations? It is a subjective point, to be sure, that such suffering is worth the art it creates, but who really would have wanted to be Sylvia Plath, alone, terrified, angry and willing to die, tucking towels under the door and opening windows in the childrens’ room so they wouldn’t inhale the gas? I am reluctant to grace mental illness with any sort of sanctity because while we get to enjoy the fruit borne from madness, the lives of those whose minds burned them out are often nothing any of us would want. Yes, I wish there was a cure for all mental illness and I know the best most of us can do is cope however we decide to cope, but I am uneasy as hell as seeing the bright side to any of this. “Yay, we got some poems before Plath gassed herself!” is not the way I want to look at this possible form of natural selection. That the world benefited from the sufferings of Ernest Hemingway, Anne Sexton, Abbie Hoffman and Edgar Allan Poe is, for many of us, a cold comfort when we realize we know how much misery they felt.
And this is a side note to this book but as a writer who lost my spark after years of struggle, depression and despair, I can tell you emphatically that being alive is better overall than writing my old brand of disturbing fiction. Perhaps I lacked talent and that is why I do not mourn my lost gifts, but I often fear that people who need treatment and can benefit from it won’t try because there is a party line that to be creative is to suffer and to risk pills means risking the spark to create. I have no idea if madness spawns great art – there have certainly been enough artists who were not mad – but the idea that it does sanctifies what seems like unnecessary suffering.
And as engaging as I found parts of this book, it began to slowly fall apart in subsequent chapters. Points are made over and over in different chapters, the focus of the chapters were at time fuzzy and at other times, Antonetta’s logic made no sense to me at all. For example, Antonetta follows the trial of a teenage neighbor who killed another little boy and we spend a lot of time reading about her reactions to the whole thing – the murdered child’s parents, the absence of support for the defendant and other musings that didn’t really play much into what I thought was the thesis of this book – the positive benefits of natural selection for forms of mental illness and the need to accept the neurodiverse without condemnation.
She relates to the testimony of how unkempt the defendant was, seeing parallels between his lack of self-care and her own. She feels a sense of sadness that the only person the defendant, Kyle, likely loved was his grandfather. But then she hits us with this:
What we had, with my neighbor Kyle’s tucked chin, cartoonish face: a boy who collected enough weapons to power a desert army and rare poisons, who taught himself as a teenager how to do a particular type of autopsy peculiar to the East Coast, studied Nazi killing, all with the intent to kill a child. My child as easily as anyone’s, I imagine, half a mile from his house.
What we had to explain him: ADHD; possibly poor parenting; possibly too little touch; a personality disorder that no doubt hundreds of thousands of people have; evil.
Then we have this:
…Kyle stands as a koan or theological knot unto himself, but he’s like one of those theologies that tell you that trying to understand the nature of the Trinity is like trying to carry the ocean with a small bucket, so I can’t go any farther than this; as Augustine said of evil, “Do not seek to know more than is appropriate.”
It is impossible to have had my mental health history and not read every book on the topic with intensity. So perhaps the average person may not have the incredibly visceral reaction I did to these passages. I try not to use the word evil because it is often a cop-out, an easy way to dismiss the need to understand things that are hard to comprehend. That Antonetta, who wants understanding of the lusciousness of the foreign mind, the mind that is not like others, yet approaches the issue of extreme mental illness and psychopathic fixations that led to murder with the word evil filled me with despair. The complex mind cuts both ways. If we are to accept the art and science that comes from neurodiverse minds, then we must make ourselves understand the destruction that comes from them, too. The madness that creates a body of literary work and the madness that causes one child to murder another are different sides of the same coin and you cannot spend one side without spending the other, and cheap words like evil to comprehend difficult situations do no one any good.
This book is not wholly without redemption. Though I clearly have taken exception to Antonetta’s use of the word luscious when describing chaotic minds, I always love accounts of how people with minds like mine describe what is going on with them. Some of her descriptions of her head resonate with me.
It’s a noisy, busy place in my head, at least most of the time.
Right now my mind’s in a phase of of furiously narrating in a you voice: you’d better put that back in the refrigerator, you need to try to sleep now. It’s kind of irritating, like having a mad mother on the inside of your ear. It doesn’t bother me much, any more than a cat who won’t stop meowing might. Minds, in my experience, are messy, loud places.
The type of discord in her mind is different than mine, but I am familiar with the sort of head that never stops talking to itself.
However, it’s interesting to me the sort of disconnect present in this book. Antonetta’s main theme of this book seems to be to discuss how people who are neurodiverse should be accepted as a positive force by those who find them foreign. Yet she seems shocked when a reviewer on Amazon comments that Dawn, a friend of Antonetta’s who wrote a book about her autism, seems utterly foreign. Antonetta says:
How strange to think of Dawn and me and all of our kin as aliens, as a different kind of human being, as if we’ve branched off like Neanderthals, or the hominids who lived 18,000 years ago and were nicknamed the hobbit people.
Surely Antonetta understands that neurotypical minds see people with autism, bipolar or unipolar disorder, or any kind of mental illness, to be alien. Isn’t discussing the ways that the neurodiverse differ from others one of the main themes in this book. Antonetta goes on tangents like this often, seemingly disingenuous to me. As I read over Antonetta’s tales of her youth, her journals, her reminiscences of the girl she once was, I felt odd with some of her statements in this book because it seems she was hyper aware of every terrible thing that her mind did to her, that she had plenty of language to discuss her turmoil even as a teen, she was completely aware how different she was from others around her, even from her own parents. So why the surprise that she and others like her are misunderstood and seen as the other by those with “normal” brains?
I think I lack a certain depth at times because I am rabidly unconcerned with how I became the person I am. I don’t care if I am this way because I inherited just the wrong genes, because evolution needs people like me, or if I was spoiled environmentally, and this lack of depth is why books like this annoy me more than they should. However, my distaste for investigating my own mental origins aside, this had the potential to be a very interesting book, discussing some thorny and fascinating topics. It just got too garbled in the execution. Antonetta’s presentation is all over the map, with ground already covered being covered again and again in a fragmented manner, with inconsistent conclusions, and far too much time dithering over “whither” when her fears for the future and conclusions seemed faulty to me. Her at times fey writing style was also not to my tastes. I don’t regret reading this book but I don’t think I will ever read it again. It was a lot of work to figure out what Antonetta was driving at, and I was left with a book that did not have much resonance with me when I finished it.