I’ve been on a non-fiction kick lately. Or more accurately, my non-fiction sweetie has been getting a bunch of interesting books from the library that I’ve been stealing. He’ll check out anything: War theory, histories and biographies, books on gardening and cooking and architecture, poetry, the more obscure branches of science. One of the many reasons I love him.* Culled from his wayward herd recently, I’ve found some great books on mental illness and mental health practitioners.
- A Fractured Mind: My Life with Multiple Personality Disorder, by Robert B. Oxnam
- Switching Time: A Doctor’s Harrowing Story of Treating a Woman with 17 Personalities, by Richard Baer
- The Unsayable: The Hidden Language of Trauma, by Annie G. Rogers, Ph.D.
- Madness: A Bipolar Life, by Marya Hornbacker
One of the occupational hazards of being a writer is turning everything into character possibilities. All my characters are messed up, of course, although I’ve never written a truly mentally affected character (Laura Kinsale’s Duke of Jervaulx is the gold standard, I believe) . But if you have any interest in creating real damage, these were all excellent source material.
— Fractured Mind was written by the patient himself with passages from several of his alters (the personalities within him). What was amazing about this story was how functional and successful he was — “Just like you and me” — except for the rampant alcoholism, losing time, having multiple personalities, etc.
— Switching Time (which I have to believe was probably a tad more harrowing for the patient that her doctor) features fascinating copies of the letters written by the alters, showing the different handwriting. The depth of abuse she suffered is hard to imagine. Probably too much for a work of ficiton, oddly enough.
Both these MPD books made reference to how all of us are “different people” depending on different circumstances. The otherwise healthy coping mechanism of adjusting your”self” as needed just becomes unhealthy when you have no control over the process. Which could easily spin off into another blog topic about how writers like to muse about The Muse…
— For a writer, The Unsayable was particularly thought provoking since it explains how some victims of abuse — especially sexually abused children — bury their terrible stories under layers of unconscious word choices and language patterns, as well as dreams, physical symptoms and behaviors. You get a new appreciation for the power of words when you read how “headache” reveals the name of a girl’s abuser and helps set her on the path to recovery.
— Madness, by a writer, was the best written and most visceral, I thought. The writers among you might feel a twinge of envy at her productivity, but being “batshit,” as she describes it, is doubtless too high a price to pay. (You vicious cynics, disregard the number of years of highlife she is apparently able to live off her advances.) Her unblinking and yet completely sympathetic account gave me a better understanding of my maternal grandmother’s difficulties with the disease.
Writers like to talk about throwing rocks at their characters. Some of this is probably more like boulders and could endanger your fantasy HEA. But if you’re not currently reading this from a locked psych ward, these books will definitely prove you’re starting 2009 off in a better place than some.
If you have any other suggestions for interesting books on the workings of the damaged or altered mind, toss ’em in the comments section. Meanwhile, I’ll collect the titles of the serial killer, LSD experimentation and birth order books that could be useful for villain building.
* The flipside of his eclectic tastes — and perverse sense of humor –was the selection he displayed on the bookshelf while my parents were visiting, including titles on The Verbally Abusive Boyfriend, How To Tell When Your Man’s Been Cheating, and did I mention LSD experimentation?… Yeah, any connection to the mental health stories much?