The Collected Schizophrenias (Esmé Weijun Wang)

Reviewed by Charlotte Price

The Collected Schizophrenias is a journey from diagnosis and its aftermath toward self-acceptance. This approach sets it apart from many other narratives of mental illness, because the book is about becoming and accepting rather than recovery. A striking exploration of medical definitions, personal experience, and media portrayals, the conversational text is personal, profound, and deeply inviting. Less scholarly and critical than recent collections regarding mental illness and disability published by women, the book reads, at times, nearly like a diary. Femininity and mental illness are often linked as stereotypes leading to unsavory misunderstandings, creating Ophelias, tragic characters, and what Leslie Jamison calls the “cult of literary sad women.” Schizophrenia, often separated from other kinds of mental illness like depression and anxiety disorders, has its own stereotypes of “madness.” Wang plays with and analyzes these stereotypes alongside her discussions of self and diagnosis. She doesn’t just discuss schizophrenia, but her other diagnoses (bipolar disorder and late stage Lyme disease). Instead of separating the diagnoses, Wang blends symptoms together and pushes toward using terms like “chronic illness.” The essay collection not only dismisses misconceptions, it deeply explores the link between diagnosis and identity from a standpoint of mental illness and other “hidden” conditions.

Among the many things that I loved about this book were that it delves into many less often discussed issues related to disability experience—such as diagnosis and identity, addresses the problematic notion of being labeled “high-functioning,” and presents a nuanced “take“ on institutionalization. The book is both personal and highly thoughtful, provoking an in-depth analysis of complex ideas with small beautiful thoughts to inspire and speak to self-knowledge. Doing additional research, I found that Wang runs a type of lifestyle blog, which focuses on empowering readers who are dealing with chronic illness, and the limitations that often arise around these experiences. On her website, Wang provides the following description of the key issues she faces and works with as larger themes within The Collected Schizophrenias:

“As someone living with late-stage Lyme disease and schizoaffective disorder, my life became constrained by limitations that immediately butted up against the desires of my ferociously ambitious self.”

The desire to succeed and accomplish a lot was completely relatable to me as a disabled identified cisgender woman with learning and psychiatric disabilities (Attention deficiet Disorder, Generalized Anxiety Disorder, and Depression symptoms). These themes were exciting for me, especially in light of my own mental illness experiences. The themes are best explored in the chapter “High-Functioning,” which focuses extensively on appearances, from an initial description of Wang’s fabulous style and make-up, to the presentation of her journey in a group setting, always careful of the language she uses. She says:

“I leaned into descriptions of experiences that I thought they’d understand—including, in Mandarian, my mother’s explanation for why she lied to my first psychiatrist about our family history of mental illness.” (p. 46)

Cultivating the story of illness is essential, and Wang unpacks this understanding by noting many key features of dress, storytelling, and her being Chinese as factors in performance. She delves later into the development of a “natural hierarchy” within the hospital where she stayed:

“A natural hierachy rose in the hospital, guided by both our own sense of functionality and the level of functionality percieved by the doctors, nurses, and social workers who treated us.” (p. 47)

Such profound discussions, almost novelistic, create tension and realism, and equally expose the internalized ableism that many face within the disability community (whether self-identifying or not).

Another fantastic discussion occurs in the chapter “Diagnosis,” which again speaks some uncomfortable truths. In this chapter (or essay), Wang outlines the various medical definitions of schizophrenia and how her own symptoms line up. Furthermore, she unpacks the struggles of getting the diagnosis after having eight years of hallucinations. But, even more interesting is Wang’s discussion of how it feels to receive a diagnosis:

“Some people dislike diagnoses, disagreeably calling them boxes and labels, but I’ve always found comfort in preexisting conditions…” (p. 5)

Thus, Wang acknowledges a kind of comfort associated with diagnosis and hints at a sense of community:

“A diagnosis is comforting because it provides a framework- a community, a lineage—and, if luck is a foot, a treatment or cure.” (p. 5)

This proposition, while controversial, still associates with a history and belonging that are so infrequently discussed. The passage brought to mind recent works regarding who can claim disability identity through means of “biocertification,” in Fantasies of Identification: Disability, Gender, and Race by Ellen Samuels, but lacks deeper analysis beyond Wang’s own thoughts.

Themes of identity and illness are taken further in “Toward a Pathology of the Possessed,” which recounts the story of Malcoum Tate, a man who was known to have schizophrenia. Tate was murdered after being shot 13 times by his own sister. This chapter is significant because Wang compares Malcoum’s murder to Malcoum’s misunderstood behavior and past criminal record, creating a specific narrative regarding “schizophrenia” (as Wang argues). This narrative therefore exposes ableism. Likewise, Wang notes the ways in which the media sensationalized this story by drawing out the brother’s diagnosis and sister’s reasoning as a means of “love,” because of the politics regarding mental illness. Wang describes these politics as: “The story of schizophrenia is one with a protagonist, ’the schizophrenic’, who is first a fine and good vessel with fine and good things inside of it, and then becomes misshapen through the ravages of psychosis; the vessel becomes prone to being filled with nasty things. Finally, the wicked thoughts and behavior that may ensue become inseparable from the person, who is now unrecognizable from what they were” (29-30). This characterization of schizophrenia is then compared to Regan in The Exorcist and contrasted in later chapters to explore another problematic trope: that of the fallen genius, or intellectual. This trope is exposed by the author in her discussions comparing A Beautiful Mind and Brain on Fire.

Overall, Wang explores her journey through diagnosis and life afterward through beautiful writing and subtle yet powerful analyses of the complex realities of illness. This essay collection is certainly an important one as it provides a well-rounded approach to the mental illness narratives of women, allowing space for self-acceptance and no clear solutions. The final lines of the final essay speak to Wang’s now attributed skills of “keeping tethered” and the realization that her symptoms could return at any time. While this book shines so brightly in its unique prose and holistic narrative style, it is also quite important in referencing Wang’s positionality. There is relatively little written about the ways in which culture impacts mental illness and identity; this book begins to explore these concepts. Wang does a good job of addressing the complexities of diagnosis, including the resistance, the fear, the lineage, and the discomfort. I only wish the book was harsher at times in its criticisms, but perhaps that is not Wang’s way. Her style makes the text more accesible to a wider range of readers, and she does it all fabulously.

Title: The Collected Schizophrenias
Author: Esme Weijun Wang
Publisher: Graywolf Press
Publication Date: 2019

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About the Reviewer

Charlotte Price is a recent graduate of Syracuse University’s iSchool, where she earned an MLIS and a Certificate of Advanced Study (CAS) in Disability Studies. She works as a librarian. Charlotte lives in her hometown of Columbus, Ohio, with her dog, Tinkerbelle.