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Writing About Mental Illness

A session with Leora Skolkin-Smith

Of the many topics most taboo on a contemporary writer’s plate, mental illness hardly has many competitors. It is, if pursued, undoubtedly met by a reader who asks: was this you? After which I, myself, give a qualified no, and burn slightly from the pain of knowing the stigma is fierce, being once in a “mental hospital” carries and draws more judgment and derision from others than it rightly should and though everyone knows that it shouldn’t, it remains one of the most censored of social confessions. Depression and loss are the substance and vital meat of some of our greatest novels but psychological treatment for grief through psychiatric hospitalization has met with a severe stigma. Can I say I was in a mental hospital? Will anyone trust me? Will I then be written off and invalid? Can I say I had grief like my main character that made me bleed in ways that needed intervention? How to write about death and yes, madness and despair after the death of a loved one.

Some of the most gifted of authors and poets from Sylvia Plath to Ken Kesey have taken on mental illness and mental hospitals and are sometimes maligned for doing so in a teasing but pejorative sense and it is common to hear a nurse explain to the patient about to be released from a long stay in a mental ward: “Don’t tell anyone where you’ve been all year.” The secretiveness, the hiding, the shame. A collision of raw emotions all indicting one, silencing one and its why often attempted suicide is thought of as a crime, and madness as a criminal state. Then, on the other extreme, books proliferate that are honest if tiring confessionals, the “me-ism” taking advantage of its autobiographical structure to bludgeon or harass or lay guilt on the outsider who must go through so much self-confession and self-description they need air. For me, as an author I had the privilege of working with one of our most skillful chroniclers of male/female angst, Grace Paley. She instilled in me a belief that fiction mattered because it was the lie that told the truth, that making art mattered a great deal and one fictionalized the reality, and that imagination and invention elevated a prose piece.

I don’t know if I succeeded or not, but my book on a young woman’s stay in long term mental hospital relied more on my willingness to tell lies and invent, than the truth that yes, indeed, many years ago I suffered a depression after a car accident with my father (which left my father brain-damaged) and that depression made me visit the savage God we call suicide for an instant in time that landed me at 25 locked up for a year. I would never give that experience back. Not for anything. It dispelled all prejudice against the so-called “mentally ill” (most of my roommates were normal but deeply hurt people) being akin to “evil”, that grief was something other than the profound but extremely deep experience it was, and that “crazy” should be, hopefully in the near future labeled pejoratively and robs a person of the dignity and existential richness that grief and yes, sometimes, “crazy” really is. Hystera, my second book deals most directly with a stay in a mental hospital, but my last book also has long passages set there. Grace had been supported in fictionalizing, telling lies that reveal truth, but also in standing by one’s truth. And again, if art is truth as Grace Paley believed then madness can be part of one’s truth, if only for a little while. For the reader, there are so many reasons to travel in this particular truth. Identification, a de-stigmatization of somewhere and something he or she is frightened of, and just the ordinary experience that at some times we are all at once mad or sad, and such a novel can be a rich meeting of selves, the reader’s and the author’s. If anything, it has been fascinating and substantial for the soul to at least try to write the book I have and I hope is interesting to some other people, as well, as crazy is a lonely experience!

This being my first blog entry, I plan to announce that I will talk more about madness and history as I entwined the two with fiction (nothing in my novel ever happened to me, it was all fictionalized) I thought I would offer these thoughts as an introduction to my work and I hope to build on some of the ideas set forth in later posts and mostly hope the fact that my books take place in a mental hospital won’t scare or deter people with whom I would consider a great privilege to share my stories and books with.


About the Author…

"Skolkin-Smith’s alchemy is to inhabit her characters even as she crafts a riveting story that is nothing short of brilliant," said Caroline Leavitt, New York Times bestselling author of Pictures of You. Reviewers and readers agree that Skolkin-Smith's work is a remarkable blend of literary mastery and profound observation. It is a combination that must be experienced to be fully appreciated.

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