When giving a talk or at a doctor’s appointment, Esmé Weijun Wang often shoehorns “I went to Yale” into the conversation. This isn’t bragging. It’s protection. Ivy League status, she writes, “is shorthand for I have schizoaffective disorder, but I’m not worthless.”
While the 13 essays in Wang’s “The Collected Schizophrenias” range over a wide field, many touch on Wang’s awareness that her illness is not only a danger to her but a brand that can blind others to the full scope of her humanity.
Raised by hard-striving Taiwanese immigrant parents, Wang was a chronic overachiever whose high school accomplishments “belied the hundreds of self-inflicted scars lurking beneath.” She inherited a love of writing from her mother, but also “a tendency for madness.” Diagnosed with bipolar disorder before leaving for Yale, she suffered manic episodes and slid down dark suicidal tunnels. After two hospitalizations she cuttingly terms a “breach of etiquette,” Yale asked her to leave. She characterizes this attitude as “students should not have severe mental illness.”
Still, Wang wasn’t stopped. Graduating from Stanford University and the University of Michigan, she worked as a lab researcher and editor, built a profile as a sharp-eyed fashion blogger and wrote a 2016 novel, “The Border of Paradise,” that secured a slot in Granta’s list of the best young American novelists. But “The Collected Schizophrenias” — winner of the Graywolf Press Nonfiction Prize — is no laundry list of triumphs.
Wang writes with lucid clarity about the “fresh hell in my brain” and forgoing raising children with her husband due to the risk that “I could be psychotic again at any moment.” Involuntary hospitalizations terrify with the loss of autonomy and attendant desire to minimize symptoms for escape: “I said nothing about the horror show that was still sinking its teeth into me.”
She also suffered bouts of Lyme disease and post-traumatic stress disorder from being a rape survivor. Richly descriptive in these sections, her writing is dotted with a battle-hardened humor, defining psychiatry’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual as “the heavy purple bible-o’-madness” and wondering with bleak chagrin “how many different types of sick girl I can be.”
Threaded through Wang’s fractured yet cohesive and empathy-sparking narrative is the awareness that as frightening as the hallucinated voices are to those like her, they terrify others and threaten social ostracization: “We deteriorate in a way that is painful for others.”
Having run clinical interviews at Stanford’s psychology department, Wang knows the sometimes arbitrary nature of classification. But even as somebody who “finds comfort in science” and is cautious about the Kay Redfield Jamison (“An Unquiet Mind”) romanticized view of mental illness, by the end of this harrowing and heartfelt collection, she also leaves open the hope that there are other nonclinical ways forward that might allow her to “wrangle sense out of the senseless.”
Chris Barsanti has written books on film, history and pop culture. He is a member of the National Book Critics Circle and the Online Film Critics Society. He lives in St. Paul.
The Collected Schizophrenias
By: Esme Weijun Wang.
Publisher: Graywolf Press, 202 pages, $16