Liminal Dispatches: Esmé Weijun Wang's The Collected Schizophrenias
In the opening pages of this impressive collection of personal essays, Esmé Weijun Wang describes a common perspective on schizophrenia: that of people who do not have the condition and are discomfited by people who do. In contrast, The Collected Schizophrenias lets us into the body and mind of a person with schizophrenia. We learn, to the extent that reading and empathy allow, what schizophrenia feels like from the inside. Wang has schizoaffective disorder, which she describes as "the fucked-up offspring of schizophrenia and manic depression."
Wang shows this to the reader through snippets (“For one season, I saw shadowy demons darting at me from all angles, and I couldn't control my response, which was to jump to the side or duck or startle at things that no one else could see.”) as well as through extended descriptions of psychosis. Here, for example, Wang describes the transition into full-blown psychosis: "I turn my head and in a single moment realize that my coworkers have been replaced by robots, or glance at my sewing table as the thought settles over me, fine and gray as soot, that I am dead."
But rather than sticking strictly to personal experience, Wang, in a voice that strikes a perfect balance between explanation and implication, also relates schizophrenia to aspects of news and pop culture, from the murder, by his sister and mother, of schizophrenic Malcoum Tate to The Exorcist (1973) to the HBO documentary Beware the Slenderman (2016), about two girls, one of whom was later diagnosed with schizophrenia, who tried to murder a close friend to please an imaginary, sinister character.
After establishing that schizophrenia makes others uncomfortable, the book reveals a more interesting phenomenon: people with schizophrenia, Wang included, also make each other uncomfortable. As an ambitious, accomplished person with a particular interest in fashion, Wang writes, she is uncomfortable being associated with a group of people collectively known for having limited abilities and an unkempt appearance. As she describes in the essay "High-Functioning," when she speaks to groups of people with schizophrenia, Wang tries—through her clothing and through her speech—to set herself apart from her audience. After one such talk, a member of the audience—a group, Wang writes, that "would immediately be labeled by many as crazy, to be pitied and even avoided"—comments, "I thought I had it bad." And Wang is unnerved. "I was her, but I didn't want to be her," she writes. "I'm uncomfortably uncomfortable," Wang writes a few pages later, "because I know that these are my people in ways that those who have never experienced psychosis can't understand, and to shun them is to shun a large part of myself."
Another fascinating theme of Wang's collection is identity: What is the self, and how does being mentally ill affect the self? For example, Wang asks whether she is a “person with schizoaffective disorder, ” as trainings have taught her to say, or a “schizophrenic.” Debates over “person-first ” language hint at the deeper question of whether it's possible to think of a mentally ill person as existing apart from their illness. Wang isn't sure that she can, in her own case.
'Person-first language' suggests that there is a person in there without the delusions and the rambling and the catatonia. But what if there isn't? [...] And if it's true that I think, therefore I am, perhaps the fact that my thoughts have become so heavily mottled with confusion means that those confused thoughts make up the gestalt of myself; this is why I use the word 'schizophrenic,' although many mental health advocates don't.
This question of whether schizophrenia co-opts the self also relates to debates about involuntary confinement, as Wang describes in "Toward A Pathology of the Possessed." Some proponents of involuntary confinement believe that people with schizophrenia cannot be trusted to choose treatment. Wang goes on to ask what that says about the schizophrenic self: "Sartre claimed, 'We are our choices,' but what has a person become when it's assumed that said person is innately incapable of choice?" In the same essay, Wang starts with the notion that in schizophrenia, the self gets lost and equates it, seemingly as a way of criticizing that notion, to the idea of schizophrenia as possession (this is where The Exorcist comes in).
Identity is just one of many universal, or at least broadly accessible, themes that Wang touches upon in her collection. In essay after essay, she draws connections between schizophrenia and other experiences. Having schizophrenia is like watching a movie and believing it's real ("Reality, On-Screen"); like believing in a fantasy ("The Slender Man, the Nothing, and Me"); like having PTSD and seeing an attacker's face where it isn't ("John Doe, Psychosis"); like having mystical experiences ("Beyond the Hedge"). But in a state of psychosis, the unreal things in which one believes are not projected images or Internet-fueled fantasies but, instead, creations of one's own malfunctioning mind. The extent to which one believes in one's visions is perhaps greater, and is certainly less controlled, in schizophrenia, than when one, say, makes "a pact with [a] film to suspend disbelief."
Wang travels and translates between the worlds of reality and psychosis. The concept of going between worlds is sometimes called liminality. Etymologically, the term refers to any threshold. "Sacred Arts" professional Bri Saussi introduces Wang to another interpretation of the term: the ability to go beyond reality into a sort of mystical or spiritual realm. It's also another way of looking at schizophrenia. One person's psychosis, Saussi suggests, is another's liminality, and liminality, Saussi believes, can be useful.
It's not for me to judge whether Wang's spiritual liminality, as Saussi views it, is a gift to her or to anyone; however, Wang's ability to work at the threshold between her experiences and the page is most certainly a gift to us.