Psychology » Mental Health

The best books on Mental Illness

recommended by Samantha Harvey

The author discusses books on mental illness, explaining the conditions that keep us sane and the effects of removing them. Recommendations include Sartre, Coetzee, and John Bayley on Iris Murdoch

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Tell us about Blindness.

It’s a novel about a city, and ultimately a country, being struck by an entirely unexplained plague of blindness, which rapidly transforms this civilized society into anarchy. I chose it because it brings up the question of what conditions are necessary for sanity and what happens when you take those conditions away, and also the idea that mental or physical wellbeing are really quite narrow states. They depend on all things being equal: things like having enough resources, having physical ability and a basic sense of justice and shared logic and so on, and Blindness highlights how close any of us are from becoming mentally unwell and unstable without those. The epidemic appears from nowhere, and the state locks the afflicted people away into a mental asylum to try to control it. They don’t give them food, but they have access to medicine. But they can’t control the epidemic, and soon everybody is affected and all hell breaks loose. The people become like animals – they kill each other to get food and by the end of it there are corpses lying all over the streets. It’s obviously a sort of allegory and a kind of literary sci-fi. I don’t think he’s trying to be subtle at all. It’s very disturbing, very powerful writing; Saramago’s a brilliant writer. It’s beautifully challenging: he doesn’t use punctuation, except for full stops, and he doesn’t use speech marks. None of the characters have names, they’re just given titles like “the Doctor”, or “the Doctor’s wife” and their speech just runs together. It’s usually quite clear who’s speaking, but it’s muffled: like everyone’s just surfacing from water.

He denies the reader a certain amount of sensory perception?

Exactly: there’s very little about what people look like, obviously, because everyone’s blind, so you feel you’re sort of lost in this world as well. In Blindness it’s just one physical defect that renders all of civilization completely useless, and disordered, and inhumane.

Your next book?

The Forgetting is a very lucid and well-written portrait of Alzheimer’s disease. It gives a sort of biography and history of the disease, using medical and anecdotal sources and case histories. Each chapter begins with a quote from an Alzheimer’s sufferer, the first of which is “I have lost myself” which is something that the first diagnosed Alzheimer’s sufferer reportedly said. The book talks about people having really lost themselves to this disease, which it perceives as an entity in itself, almost like an alien invasion. He treats it as this thing that’s come upon us with epidemic proportions. Although the world would be a better place without it, there’s an awful lot that we can learn about ourselves and the way that we work and think by looking at the disease. It helps us to see layers of the mind. Schenk discusses quite a well-known theory: he maps out the human brain and shows the development of Alzheimer’s in its various stages, and shows how it’s an almost true undoing of the brain, which unravels in the exact order that it develops. His idea is that by looking at the disease and the progress of it you can actually learn a lot about the way that the brain works and how it develops in our early life and understand more about what it is that makes us tick. I’m not sure there’s anything that people who suffer from Alzheimer’s do that the rest of us don’t do – they just do it in an extreme and alarming way. I think that’s why it’s such an interesting disease, because we can all relate to it. Not just because we’re afraid of it, but because we already know what it’s like to experience some of those things in a more watered-down way.

And Iris?

It’s very different to The Forgetting, even though they’re vaguely about the same subject. It’s not a portrait of Alzheimer’s at all: it’s a portrait of a person, and Bayley treats the disease as if it’s just another aspect of this person. He never loses sight of Iris, and in a way his view of her becomes sharper and sharper as the book develops. He doesn’t really view Alzheimer’s as a disease so much as a kind of bad sort that Iris has got herself mixed up with, which, as he loves her, he’ll put up with. He’ll tolerate it being around while they’re having dinner, and he’ll even join in with it. He sits and watches Teletubbies with her and actually quite immerses himself in the experience. There’s real sense of the disease being just a facet of her personality, and I think it’s a really interesting way of viewing it. A few reviews of the book said that it’s a love story and then commend the fact that it’s not a very sentimental love story. I’m not so sure that it’s a love story as such: it’s more than that. It’s more of an ode to freedom, and to Iris Murdoch as a free and self-directing, self-possessed person who has not chosen, but has built the disease into her sense of herself and of her freedom, and he doesn’t want to take that away from her. I think that’s what makes it such a touching book – much more than it being a love story, it’s more about preserving her as she is and was. As a philosopher Iris Murdoch was very concerned with the idea of freedom, and yet the characters in her books were often not very free individuals, stuck in weird and constrained situations. I got the sense that Bayley didn’t want to make her a constrained character in his book, and wanted to keep her alive and as she was in real life. It’s a very beautiful book because it doesn’t yield to the disease: it describes it, and he’s horrified by it, and there are a lot of bleak moments. But he’s really intent on seeing her as she is.

Sartre’s Nausea?

It’s a diary of Roquentin, a 30-year-old Frenchman (although in the novel he feels much older to me) who’s been travelling, and he’s come back to France and is narrating his days and his experience of being a misanthrope and being ill at ease with himself. He gives this malaise the name ’nausea’: which I think is some kind of consciousness of your own existence, and the existence of everything else, and the horror and disgust he has at that and at himself. I suppose the question is whether Sartre is describing some kind of real existential condition, whether he’s having an insight into human nature, or whether actually this really isn’t at all how we think and feel and live, in which case Roquentin is mentally ill. So the question of mental illness comes down to whether Sartre’s right about his philosophy, which is an interesting question.

And your last book? 

It’s set during the civil war in South Africa in the 70s or 80s. It’s an absolutely devastating read from the first page, but you can’t put it down. It’s a terrible and beautiful story about a man, Michael K, whose mother is dying, and they leave Cape Town in a bid to get her back to her homeland. He builds this makeshift cart and starts pushing her along the road. In a sense it’s a road trip, but one with apartheid built into it, and all the troubles of trying to live amidst a civil war. On the way K’s mother dies and is cremated, and he takes her ashes and decides he’ll continue with his journey and return them to her birthplace. He does eventually get there, but he goes mad in the process, although this is another case of the madness being socialised into him. He’s quite delusional because he doesn’t have enough to eat or drink. He lives in a field in a hole that he’s dug, and whenever he’s caught he’s subjected to terrible mistreatment. But he favours freedom above all else, and decides he’d rather live in this hole and be free than in a camp. It’s almost entirely narrated by him, so you get this very tender portrait of a man doing his best to survive, and in a way his simplicity is in his favour and allows him to utilise the limited resources he has. For example he finds seeds and grows melons and he thinks of them as his sisters, and then he grows some pumpkins that are his brotherhood: so these are humanity to him. It’s a very terrible and tender book. Again it’s about the conditions that keep us sane and what happens if they’re taken away from us – if we’re constantly mistreated and left without food and drink. The human brain functions within a fairly small bandwidth and when it goes outside of that anything can happen. Although I don’t think Coetzee would want him to be seen that way, certainly Michael K behaves in ways society would label as mentally ill. It’s a very beautiful and affecting book.

September 27, 2009

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Samantha Harvey

Samantha Harvey

Samantha Harvey is a writer whose debut novel, The Wilderness, is about a man suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. She has lived in Ireland, New Zealand and Japan, writing, travelling and teaching, and in recent years co-founded an environmental charity. She has a master’s degree in philosophy. The Wilderness, her first novel, won the Betty Trask Award.

Samantha Harvey

Samantha Harvey

Samantha Harvey is a writer whose debut novel, The Wilderness, is about a man suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. She has lived in Ireland, New Zealand and Japan, writing, travelling and teaching, and in recent years co-founded an environmental charity. She has a master’s degree in philosophy. The Wilderness, her first novel, won the Betty Trask Award.