Esmé Weijun Wang: The Collected Schizophrenias
by Lauren Fournier
The Collected Schizophrenias is American writer Esmé Weijun Wang’s first book of non-fiction. Written in the first person, the work moves between the present day and Wang’s past experiences as a woman living with what has been diagnosed as schizoaffective disorder, bipolar I. Wang’s book is at home in the oeuvre of its Minnesota-based indie press, which often publishes books that are genre-ambiguous and autofictionally or autotheoretically inclined (most famously Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts ).
Schizophrenia, as Wang puts it in the opening pages, “shirks reality in favor of its own internal logic.” The reality established in the world of Wang’s book, in contrast, exists somewhere between the destabilizing logic of schizophrenia and the more mainstream logic of neurotypical reality in ways that are coherent and cogent. Wang therefore shirks the aesthetics of fragmentation so characteristic of schizophrenia genres past: from the use of “schizophrenia” as a metaphor for the postmodern condition (exemplified by the 1975 “Schizo-Culture” conference at Columbia University and the two schizo-themed issues of Sylvère Lotringer’s Semiotext(e) journal) to the mythic automatic writings of artist Unica Zürn. Of course, the politics of “coherence” are the crux of Wang’s book, which re-energizes questions of intelligibility and legibility—questions long tied to feminism, race, madness, institutionality and power—in the context of 2019. As the book progresses, it becomes clear that the logic of so-called “reality,” with its leftover Enlightenment values, is itself internally conflicted. Schizophrenia, for Wang, becomes a ripe, equivocal counterpoint for starting to think through the limits of, and possible alliances within, our varied systems of knowledge.
Wang puts into conversation a dynamic range of different fields of understanding, from religions like Catholicism to Western medicine and alternative medical practices (like the emergent field of autoimmune neurology and the controversial field of Chronic Lyme Disease). By having these different modalities cohere around the phenomenon to which Wang refers, tenderly, as “the schizophrenias,” she sheds light on the limits of these modes when it comes to understanding schizophrenia’s origins and cures. How are we to understand schizophrenia? Is it possession? A gift from God? A mental illness? Is it passed on genetically, through one’s maternal line? Is it caused by a bacterial infection? Is it a form of late-stage Lyme disease? Is it psychosis or psychic ability? Can it be both? And what do we make of the relationship between people being exceptionally bright, readerly students and later experiencing the onset of schizophrenia? Is there a correlation there? It would seem so, at least from the anecdotal evidence that Wang gathers in her interwoven essays.
Wang moves between registers, writing through her experience alongside interviews, medical stats, shrewd references to movies (The Exorcist), literature (Joan Didion), theory and art history (Henry Darger). She approaches schizophrenia as an auto-philosopher, considering her chosen topic from varied, even antithetical, perspectives while avoiding the moral relativism that might result in less capable hands. She gives the ethically charged questions under consideration— such as forcible treatment and involuntary psychiatric commitment—the careful contemplation of a philosopher instead of a more hard-lined, black-and-white activist stance. She is, however, far from “objective,” and while she makes repeated reference to her background as a lab researcher, the bulk of the book’s knowledge comes from her embodied experience as a woman with schizophrenia who has been involuntarily hospitalized three times—with each of those times being, she recognizes, traumatic and unhelpful.
I found myself scanning the more statistic-heavy pages, which could serve as useful resources for readers who are navigating diagnoses themselves. While the book includes these more formal registers, all seen, it is essayistic and incantatory, moving into the realm of advocacy only to come back once more to open-ended writing with and through this swelling thing, “the schizophrenias.” Riffing on the categorization of “the schizophrenias” cluster in the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM–5), Wang’s reference enlivens these diagnoses with a kind of animacy and agency (not unlike artist and scholar Shannon Bell’s idea of the “post-hysteric” as a wilful figure after, or “post,” Lacan).
Each chapter brings an aspect of living with schizophrenia to the fore. In “Reality, On Screen,” Wang’s experience seeing the 2014 blockbuster sci-fi film Lucy in the theatre becomes a catalyst for her to unpack the ways that certain movies trigger (a word which she herself does not use) psychotic episodes by persuasively constructing a different, non-normative “reality.” This risk is heightened by certain forms of viewing and display—especially the post-IMAX cinematic experience of visual and auditory immersion so common in movie theatres today. In “L’Appel du Vide,” Wang delves into the tension between self-imaging and self-immolation through a consideration of the 2012 Francesca Woodman retrospective at SFMOMA; in “Yale Will Not Save You,” she addresses urgent issues related to student mental health on university campuses.
Wang’s book is at its weakest when interjecting, jarringly, about fashion. Wang describes her high-end clothes and makeup as differentiating her from “the slovenly” schizophrenics. When preparing for her presentation to others with schizophrenia at a clinic in San Francisco’s Chinatown, she describes what she is wearing in terms of brand names: “a brown silk Marc Jacobs dress… Chanel’s Vitalumière Hydra Foundation… Tom Ford lipstick.” While there is some winking self-awareness vis-à-vis the problematics of her “passing” as something other than the community of which she is a part, I wish she’d push this further. While there’s a frank honesty to how Wang’s financial capacities and attractiveness provide her with some distance from the abyssal abjection of poor, homeless schizophrenics, her reluctance to complicate this with the critical nuance she demonstrates with other issues leaves the reader wanting. After Wang describes the correlative relationship between her mental health and makeup routine on a given day, for example, I remain unconvinced by the capitalism-as-empowerment worldview that has become so entrenched in neoliberal feminist-branded lifestyle blogs. There’s a big gap between dressing with dignity as a form of self-care as a sick person (of the kind Audre Lorde describes, where self-care is wilful survival in a world that is harmful to you), and wearing ultra-expensive brand names that most people will never be able to afford—and this gap remains curiously uncritical in Wang’s essays.
Wang book-ends The Collected Schizophrenias with the notion of a framework, or frame—something discursive that can hold or contain that which is uncontainable. In the opening essay, “Diagnosis,” it is a medical diagnosis from the psychiatric “bible” (as Wang repeatedly refers to the DSM-5) that provides Wang with a much-needed frame within which to begin to hold and understand her lived experience. In the closing chapter, “Beyond the Hedge,” Wang writes of the Tarot, oracle cards and the sacred arts as having “offered a decent framework from which to hang a fractured existence.”
In one of her many references to Descartes’ cogito ergo sum, Wang asks, “If I am psychotic 98% of the time, who am I? If I believe that I don’t exist, or that I am dead, who am I?” In writing about schizophrenia from a perspective that is as personal as it is cross-disciplinarily citational, Wang sheds light on a topic that continues to evade—complicating the foundations of Western philosophy as she does so. At the same time, she leaves the origins, potential “cures” and best practices for taking care of schizophrenia generatively unresolved. The book stands as a valuable contribution to the growing body of writing by sick-identifying artists and writers on mental health, chronic illness and autoimmune disorders, as well as other historically ignored or misunderstood illnesses. Wang tethers her mind, as she says in the book’s final sentence, in these varied knowledges, processing them through experience— an auto-philosophical movement that allows her, through writing and reflection, to “wrangle sense out of the senseless.”