Fear of Complexity and the Mental Illness Memoir

Open Access
Lodder, Luiza Neddermeyer Van Krimpen
Area of Honors:
Bachelor of Arts
Document Type:
Thesis Supervisors:
  • Robert Caserio, Thesis Supervisor
  • Marcy North, Honors Advisor
  • Mental illness
  • mental health
  • psychiatry
  • memoir
  • literature
I write this essay in response to a question that has captured my interest for some time: what do memoirs written by people who have experienced mental illness have to say about current attitudes towards behavioral and psychological dysfunction? To answer this question, I examine two memoirs published in the past two decades: Barbara Taylor's The Last Asylum: A Memoir of Madness in Our Times (2014) and Andrew Solomon's The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression (2001). I chose these as much for their high-caliber writing and vivid narratives as for the authors' emphatic scrutiny and reasonable criticism of practices, establishments, and assumptions vis à vis their illnesses. These memoirs are more than extended ruminations on past events or vehicles for airing personal ideologies or grievances. Taylor and Solomon seek to paint a picture of mental illness that is as close to the truth as possible without resorting to caricatures or tired stereotypes. They respect its singularities and mysteries. This ability of the authors to respect the complexity of the experience of mental illness in Western countries today catalyzed the formation of my argument, which is that attitudes towards behavioral and psychological dysfunction (at least in the United States and in the United Kingdom) are characterized by a fear of complexity. The two main manifestations of this fear of complexity are simplified stories and reductive language, both of which are perpetuated in movies, books, and the media. I will examine how each memoir reacts to this fear of complexity first by choosing a specific example of a simplified story or instance of reductive language to which the author responds, and then by analyzing the narrative strategies the author uses to formulate their response. What effects might these narrative strategies or stylistic choices have on the reader, and by extension, the people living with mental illness? How does each author characterize their own memoir, and how does this characterization affect the author’s response to simplified stories and reductive language? Finally, how do Solomon and Taylor represent the complexity of mental illness? These are the questions that prompted me to consider these memoirs as more than bedtime reading, and to examine their role in a culture that in many ways shies away from accepting complexity.