- Life Writing and Schizophrenia: Encounters at the Edge of Meaning by Mary Elene Wood
Schizophrenia is widely regarded as the worst of the serious mental illnesses, associated with experiences such as hearing voices, having delusions, and speaking in disorganized and apparently meaningless ways. Popular and medical representations of schizophrenia typically focus on how people with this diagnosis appear to others, but only rarely do they try to represent how individuals themselves experience and make meaning in their lives. In this important book, Mary Elene Wood offers a counter to the widespread notion that people with a diagnosis of schizophrenia are unable to tell a coherent story and therefore cannot be taken seriously as speakers about their own condition. Typically, the stories that such people tell are used by clinicians as a diagnostic tool, as evidence that the person has schizophrenia. While for the rest of us, narratives are a key means through which we assert our identity, for those who receive a diagnosis of schizophrenia, the stories they tell are regarded as symptoms that justify the diagnosis. These people become “the objects of narrative” (16) rather than the speakers. According to Wood, this assigns to those individuals an ontological status different from and somehow less human than the rest of us. They are without personhood. She instead insists that the stories of people with a diagnosis of schizophrenia be attended to with respect and the understanding that in their stories they convey their experiences and narrate their identity, just as the rest of us do.
Wood is a literary scholar and has chosen for analysis a variety of writings by and about people with schizophrenia. These include four memoirs written by women institutionalized for varying periods of time in mental hospitals; the first-person narratives that appear in every issue of the journal Schizophrenia Bulletin; the writings of Freud and Gregory Bateson, who took seriously the stories of writers diagnosed with schizophrenia; the fictional and autobiographical writing of Janet Frame, a New Zealand author and person living with schizophrenia; the diagnostic narratives found in the case book that accompanies the DSM-IV; and her own mother’s story of schizophrenia and institutionalization. Wood brings her considerable analytic abilities to bear in showing that even in the most apparently incoherent of stories, people struggle to tell their own stories, to construct meaningful identities, and to retain some sense of control in their lives.
Every narrative is of course a construction rather than a representation of reality. Narrators tell some part of a much larger story while narrating some version of a smaller story. They entwine larger cultural discourses with personal experience, societal expectations with individual goals and desires. In [End Page 820] each of her chapters, Wood shows that this is as true of people with a diagnosis of schizophrenia as it is of anyone else. She demonstrates the complex ways in which people with a diagnosis of schizophrenia respond to and incorporate larger cultural discourses in their own stories, even when they seem at their most incoherent. Particularly the medical story of schizophrenia provides a larger discourse that the writers she analyzes work to counter in their descriptions of their experiences. She also addresses the ethical minefield of attempting to speak for others through the interpretation of their words. This is an essential issue in the analysis of any speaker’s words, but particularly so when the analyst wants to avoid turning the lives of the writers into objects for analysis; that is, to avoid doing what Wood claims medical professionals do when they use stories as a basis for diagnosis. Instead, she asserts her intention to regard the writers she analyzes as active knowing subjects, with the ability to interpret their own experiences and to take the position of expert in that experience.
Readers will be attracted to different chapters in this book, depending on their specific interests. Two chapters stood out for me: the one on how patients’ stories have been incorporated into the DSM-IV...