- Life Writing and Schizophrenia: Encounters at the Edge of Meaning by Mary Elene Wood
Stories about mental illness can hardly ever be totally impersonal. Impersonal is definitely not the word for Elene Wood's work on life writing—"a book about stories of schizophrenia" (1). Drawing on facts from the history of schizophrenia, Wood points at a generally accepted opinion that once diagnosed, a person is no longer granted an ability to construct a coherent story of his or her own. This book presents a thorough analysis of several autobiographical stories that counters such an opinion and establishes the relevance of the person's immediate experience.
Certain facts from the history of studying the diagnosis of schizophrenia explain why patients' own stories are often left behind. In other words, they are not given much attention in the diagnostic case books. Wood's historical review ranges from Kraepelin's idea of schizophrenia as an incurable illness to [End Page 237] the appearance of the Foucauldian and Deleuzian postmodern hero. The former resulted in the fact that the words of a person diagnosed with schizophrenia automatically ceased to be meaningful and relevant—although Freud's analysis of Paul Schreber's narrative discussed in Chapter 3 may serve an exception because in the early twentieth century "the dismissal of 'schizophrenic patient' narrative was not yet a given" (119). The latter drew attention away from the experience of a real living human and focused on the metaphorical usage of the diagnosis. Eventually the real living human became deprived of the right to have his or her voice heard, or, as Wilma Boevink, quoted by Wood's notes, "after all, with a disorder you cannot speak" (104).
Such loss of narrativity in the patients with schizophrenia is often paralleled with the loss of self, as a narrative is thought to be constituting one's identity. Wood argues that such a stereotype stems from the ideology-induced cultural representation of madness and gives way to considering those with schizophrenia as abnormal and fundamentally other. The issue of "otherness" taken up by Wood is important and every chapter in the book proves that a diagnosed person feels and is perceived by others as always already beyond humanity and understanding.
It may be quite correct to suppose that stories of schizophrenia report those kinds of personal lived experience that cannot always be communicated coherently and understood by others. Wood's work is exemplary in its approach to coherency as it constitutes one of the main challenges on which she aims to throw some light. An incoherent narrative, Wood states, is often perceived by practitioners and society in general as the one that does not make sense. Yet, drawing upon several examples from literature, Wood proves that an incoherent narrative is the most convincing, as it conveys how the patient experiences illness from the inside, while narratives of the diagnostic case books are mediated to a large extent by the doctor's interpretation. Wood dwells on the idea, also conveyed in the works of Clive Baldwin and Rita Charon, that the issue is the listener's inability to comprehend the patient's narrative rather than the latter's loss of personhood and ability to construct meaningful stories.
Wood argues that people with schizophrenia are able not just to construct their stories but, in fact, should do so in order to achieve a curing effect. The urge to present a unifying story, even though fragmented, and find appropriate words for one's experience is something that helps to organize the chaos that schizophrenia may bring to one's life. As a literary scholar, Wood turns to memoirs as examples of how important storytelling is, yet it should be noted that in Chapters 1 and 4 Wood deals with memoirs written solely by women, though never marks those as feminist. [End Page 238]
Owing to the women's personal accounts described in the memoirs analyzed in Chapter 1, the reader sees that the experiences from "inside" and "outside" of illness vary. Wood...