My guest blogger today, Shauna McCauley, is writing about mental illness in current fiction—how to do it, when to do, and if we should do it at all. Thanks for stopping by to read.
Shauna writes: In the last thirty years or so, with the rise of pop psychology and general public awareness of mental health issues, mental illness has become an increasingly popular topic among writers of all genres, but particularly horror. It is worth noting that artists, and particularly writers, do often struggle with mental illness, particularly anxiety and depression, so, much of the sense of interior instability that shows up in many works of fiction is actually rooted in the truth that they live with every day.
Where many writers fall in to a dangerous trap, however, is with the more unusual mental illnesses. Most people, even if they haven’t been put in therapy, or on medication for it, have experienced some manner of mental instability, such as depression while grieving the loss of a loved one, or heightened stress and anxiety during a major life change, but it’s hard to understand the unique experience that comes with being autistic, or schizophrenic, or even having dissociative identity disorder. The best stories come from writers who take the time to get to know people with these disorders on a personal level, and learn not only how they think, but to have a deep empathy for them.
One good example of this is Mark Haddon’s 2003 novel The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime. Later adapted into a critically acclaimed stage play, it tells the story of an autistic boy with a talent for maths, Christopher, in his own words, as he attempts to solve the murder of his neighbor’s dog. Haddon had some experience working with autistic children as a young man, although he does not consider himself an expert, but what makes the difference in this story is the very human way that he presents Christopher. He is complicated, flawed, sympathetic, and, most importantly, he is the true protagonist of this story. Sadly, many writers have not faired quite as well.
Stephen King, in many of his works including Secret Window, Secret Garden and The Shining has presented something very much like Dissociative Identity Disorder. In both stories, one of the protagonists, Mort and Danny respectively, develop secondary personalities that they can interact with, Tony and John. In Danny’s case, Tony is a protective personality that allows him to live with his psychic abilities, while in Mort’s, John Shooter is a product of stress related to marital turmoil combined with an overactive writer’s imagination. Neither of these paint a completely accurate picture of what this disorder is actually like. King, however, doesn’t claim anything other than artistic license, not giving a real name to what these characters are experiencing.
In one story it’s a superpower, while in the other, it’s a monster. More apparent to the current popular consciousness is M. Night Shyamalan’s recent film Split, in which the antagonist is explicitly characterized as a man suffering from an extreme case of dissociative identity disorder, with more than twenty individual personalities inhabiting the same body. He develops this idea that different personalities can have slightly different body chemistries in D.I.D. patients, and uses it to allow his antagonist to create a monstrous, cannibalistic personality that is so physically strong it’s practically invulnerable. While he does very much acknowledge that people with this disorder are usually the victims of severe psychological trauma, he makes his D.I.D. patient into a side show of sorts to make an, in my opinion, unfulfilled point about pain making people stronger.
While it’s a good thing that writers are telling stories about people with extreme mental disorders, this subject should be approached from a place of compassion rather than the sort of idle curiosity that has led to almost a fetishization of it. Non-neurotypical characters are a great way to broaden your own, and your readers’, perspective, but not for the sake of novelty, or trend, or if your interest is only enough to do a bit of research. The key to this is the same as it is in any well written character, to see them as people rather than plot devices.