The Collected Schizophrenias Book Review
“I am trying to say that I am a wife,” writes Esmé Weijun Wang in The Collected Schizophrenias. “I am a good patient, I am an entrepreneur. I am also schizoaffective, living with schizoaffective disorder, living with mental illness, living with mental health challenges, crazy, insane—but I am just like you.”
My experience with schizophrenia, thus far, has been limited to what I’ve been able to glean from movies and television. When you say the word schizophrenia, what comes to mind is the movie Sybil, about the woman who had multiple personalities. Or the Showtime series, The United States of Tara, again about a woman with multiple personalities. Which is to say, I know absolutely nothing about schizophrenia—neither Sybil nor Tara were people with schizophrenia. Instead, they suffered from multiple personality disorder.
The Collected Schizophrenias offers much-needed clarification about what it means to live with schizoaffective disorder—namely that it doesn’t necessarily mean one is a danger to society, or that they can’t hold down a job. Despite her struggles, Wang is, as she writes, just like everyone else—meaning that Wang is human, not a stereotype; not someone to be feared, shunned, or ignored. She is not crazy—or maybe she is. But the point is that we are all crazy in our own ways.
Wang is careful not to sensationalize or otherwise exploit herself or others living with schizoaffective disorder. Rather, the collection is an honest and stark portrayal of what it feels like to, at times, not know what’s real. Told in exact and detailed writing, Wang shares her experiences with being locked up against her will, with not being taken seriously by medical professionals, and with trying to manage living in the liminal in a world that insists on the binary.
The collection also explores navigating the educational system, suicide, societal misinformation, the financial strain of dealing with mental illness, and the question of motherhood, all through Wang’s exacting and precise prose.
In one of the most eye-opening essays, “Reality, On-screen,” Wang describes what it’s like to watch movies and television shows—a relatively benign, even escapist activity for most—with her disorder. For Wang, that escape can turn into wondering if what happened on screen was real, or if it just happened in what our culture would call “real life.”
The collection also touches on historical accounts of schizophrenia and dedicates an essay to the realm of the non-rational—the mystical, faith, and the idea that we can use our suffering to make meaning.
Taken as a whole, The Collected Schizophrenias asks readers to confront and disassemble their biases, misconceptions, and, most importantly to ask, who really knows what’s real anyway?