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.