Curated by Michala Beesley (Class of 2022)
Literature does more than provide a source of entertainment; it allows us to process our thoughts and connect with the ideas and lives of others. With the COVID-19 pandemic, many people have experienced mental health challenges and studies around the world have shown an increase in various forms of addiction. At the same time, there has been a marked expansion in the public awareness and discussion of these often conjoined issues.
As an English and creative writing student, I am struck by the myriad ways literature across the ages has represented mental health (Ophelia!) and addiction (Malcolm Lowry!), as well as how literary studies empowers us to consider, discuss and write about these fascinating topics. Through creative writing, for example, we are able to unpack deep and heavy thoughts and reflect on our lives – how they are and how we dearly wish them to be. Meanwhile, I have found that literature and literary studies afford dynamic opportunities to counter conventional social stigmas associated with depression, anxiety and a host of other mental health “problems.” At its best, the study of literature even helps us to create safer, more inclusive communities within which to share difficult personal experiences.
For this forum, I invited five people associated with the Department of English and Creative Writing — an undergraduate student, a Ph.D. student, a post-doctoral fellow and two professors — to answer this question: What light do literature and literary studies shine on mental health and addiction? I thank each of the contributors for their thoughtful, generous responses. I trust you will be moved and inspired by their insights.
Abby Rush is a member of the Three Affiliated Tribes of Fort Berthold. She studies creative writing at The University of Tulsa and loves to write and perform poetry in her spare time.
Have you ever heard someone say, “I’m so OCD” in relation to their organized tendencies, or their affinity for cleaning? Popular culture has heavily influenced the inaccurate use of this word. We hear it on TV, among friends, and in many other spaces. Casual and innocuous as it may seem, the use of this term can be harmful when it is used in the wrong context.
OCD refers to a condition known as obsessive-compulsive disorder, which affects many people in a myriad of ways. By using it casually in conversations not having to do with the condition, people risk diminishing the experience of individuals with OCD. Many of us are guilty of misusing the term, but it isn’t too late to begin utilizing better alternatives to explain our habits without undermining the real impacts of obsessive-compulsive disorder. Being more attuned to the language we use opens up space for better representation and collective understanding.
Contemporary novelist John Green explores obsessive-compulsive disorder and mental illness in general in Turtles All the Way Down. The main character, Aza, illuminates some of the realities of grief, OCD, and anxiety through her own life experiences in the novel. Literature like this helps teach the importance of acknowledging mental health conditions and creating safer spaces for people with them.
Lars Engle, the Ida M. Chapman Professor of English, has taught at TU since 1988. He is the author of Shakespearean Pragmatism and many articles and chapters, co-author of Studying Shakespeare’s Contemporaries, co-editor of English Renaissance Drama: A Norton Anthology and co-editor of Shakespeare and Montaigne, which comes out in December from Edinburgh University Press.
I’ll answer this with an anecdote. I occasionally teach an upper-level English course entitled Middle English Literature. Sometime in the early 1990s, I decided to assign the entirety of The Book of Margery Kempe, the early 15th-century autobiography of a woman from Norwich who began, after the difficult birth of her first child when she was about 20, to experience visitations, at first from the Devil and then from Christ.
Usually, this text appears in English courses only in relatively brief excerpts — often Margery’s narrative of how Christ appears to Margery and releases her from his prior instruction to her to fast entirely on Fridays. Christ tells her that he has given her this instruction in order to allow her to get permission to take a vow of chastity from her husband, something he’s offered her if she’ll pay his debts before her pilgrimage to Jerusalem, eat with him on Fridays, and keep up the appearance of wifehood.
On the Jerusalem pilgrimage, Margery’s eccentricities expand. She cries out and weeps loudly in church when the Host is raised, she sees white objects fluttering and smells delicious smells and hears beautiful sounds when she thinks about Christ, which she does whenever she sees a handsome man. The beating of a horse makes her howl because she sees Jesus being scourged on the way to Calvary. Some witnesses wish she were dead; others honor the intensity of her piety.
Our class discussed what would happen to Margery in late 20th-century America. Most thought she would be put on anti-psychotic drugs, or confined in a mental hospital. But like Margery’s contemporaries, the class was unsure how to categorize her experiences, and in general how to deal with undignified or disruptive religious self-expression.
I had an older student in the course, whom I will call Cordelia. Cordelia worked at TU, and after the course was over we exchanged friendly greetings whenever we saw each other, which wasn’t that often. Seven or eight years later, I ran into her outside the Student Union and she said (I paraphrase):
“Lars, you remember that course where we read Margery Kempe? I wanted to tell you something about it. Margery got me thinking about how differently intense religious experience can make people act. I had a sister I was estranged from. She had been born again as an evangelical Christian, and she had strongly-expressed opinions about my way of living that offended me, and we weren’t speaking. But something about reading Margery made me reach out to her again, and we had several good conversations, even loving ones. I understood her state of mind better, and she appreciated my trying to do that.
“She was killed in the Oklahoma City bombing. I think my reading that book was the reason that we recovered our relationship before she died. And I think that recovery in turn has helped me deal better with her loss. So do be aware that what happens in your courses can have unexpected consequences!”
Laura Thomas received her Ph.D. from the Department of English Language and Literature in 2019. She is currently a 2021-22 post-doctoral fellow in the department.
Depression, sadness, madness – all words that are associated with mental illness. And if we throw hysteria in the mix, it becomes riddled with gendered connotations. Also, quite often drug addiction and mental illness are conflated – which came first? The addiction or the madness?
The real issue lies in the artistic glamour of madness. I believe this is where the problems understanding and approaching mental illness and addiction originated. Artistic and literary glamorization of mental illness and addiction can be beautiful and mystical, and this is the attraction, especially for many people who have never really witnessed or lived with addiction or depression.
I am reminded of the 2001 film A Beautiful Mind wherein the protagonist is a handsome madman and mathematics genius. The title of this movie alone reveals the romanticization of a mind gone awry – in this case, the cause is schizophrenia. My father was also the “madman in the studio,” producing painting after painting and then in his “off time” solving complex mathematical equations. But life with him wasn’t necessarily “beautiful.” Instead, it was exhausting and frightening trying to decipher his mood from day to day.
To this end, I feel if one does not live with addiction or mental illness (or both), or has not lived with someone who is afflicted, then literature and its attendant studies may not adequately teach us how to approach the illness or the individual. It seems that many successful writers, some of whom committed suicide (Sylvia Plath, David Foster Wallace) are posthumously burdened with the mystery and madness that borders on the beautiful, and this is not a true reflection of addiction or mental illness.
Laurel Taylor is a Ph.D. candidate in English. Her research interests include modern and contemporary literature, disability studies and queer theory.
“We tell ourselves stories in order to live,” wrote Joan Didion. AA members assert similarly that rehearsing “what we used to be like, what happened, and what we are like now” keeps them alive. So, too, many of us turn to literature when our lives feel fragmented and disoriented, finding therein tools for restoring narrative order and discovering our own redemptive arc. Yet, my proximity to addiction and mental illness, including as a doctoral student studying addiction history and literature, has taught me that recovery narratives are not always benign. As Parker Palmer writes, “the human soul does not want to be advised or fixed or saved. It simply wants to be witnessed.”
Thus, in my dissertation, I focus on recalcitrant texts like Djuna Barnes’s Nightwood and William Burroughs’s Naked Lunch, which summon us to relinquish our narrative expectations and moralizing impulses, nourishing, instead, our capacity to pay close attention, practice empathy, and hold space for the hard feelings and contradictions that characterize embodied experience. As life in the midst of a global pandemic and in anticipation of environmental crisis demonstrates, the stories we have told ourselves will not always, in the same forms, sustain us. Literature faithful to the varied and complex experiences of addiction and mental illness has much to model for us by way of navigating these disorienting times not with attempts to recover the status quo, but with an openness to new narrative forms and new modes of being human.
Don James McLaughlin
Don James McLaughlin is an assistant professor of English specializing in 19th-century American literature, the medical humanities, queer health, disability studies and the history of emotions. His current research focuses especially on Fitz-Greene Halleck, Walt Whitman, Sarah Orne Jewett and literary representations of psychological debate.
In The Varieties of Religious Experience, William James includes a close reading of Leaves of Grass. James is talking about “the gospel of healthy-mindedness,” a life-orientation characterized by unflagging optimism. “The supreme contemporary example…is of course Walt Whitman.” James first praises this quality: “The only sentiments [Whitman] allowed himself to express were of the expansive order;…a passionate and mystic ontological emotion suffuses his words…persuading the reader that…all things are divinely good.” Still, James proceeds by confessing skepticism: “[H]is gospel has a touch of bravado…and this diminishes its effect.” To say Whitman has “a touch of bravado” is like saying the sun is a touch bright. But Whitman’s bravado itself belongs to a cycle of dawns and twilights, and the accuracy of James’s evaluation deserves examination.
From here, James “turn[s] towards those persons who cannot so swiftly throw off the burden of the consciousness of evil, but are congenitally fated to suffer from its presence.” He proposes that religions such as Buddhism and Christianity accommodate this dilemma through rituals of “deliverance.” Interestingly, James cites his own experience of panic disorder, noting that “the fear was so invasive and powerful that if I had not clung to scripture-texts…I think I should have grown really insane.”
The psychologist became best-known as a pragmatist. In an often-cited diary entry, James determines, “I will go a step further with my will, not only act with it, but…believe in my individual reality and creative power. My belief… can’t be optimistic—but I will posit life (the real, the good) in the self-governing resistance of the ego to the world.” One of the most striking details of James’s career is how he was open about mental health struggles, while also insisting on this inextinguishable creative power of the human spirit.
Whitman was an optimist. Peruse “Song of Myself,” and there will be no doubt. However, Whitman also believed in being honest about the diverse emotions he knew well. Following his time volunteering in Washington’s hospitals for injured soldiers during the Civil War, Whitman reported symptoms suggestive of post-traumatic stress disorder. He wrote pieces for The New York Times encouraging Americans to recognize the psychological needs of veterans. As my students observed recently, friendships formed in the hospitals brought Whitman both fulfillment and heartache. “The Dresser” concludes by describing how the memories continued to visit him:
Thus in silence, in dream’s projections,
Returning, resuming, I thread my way through the hospitals;
The hurt and the wounded I pacify with soothing hand,
I sit by the restless all the dark night—some are so young;
Some suffer so much—I recall the experience sweet and sad
James and Whitman were distinct visionaries. Nonetheless, this similarity warrants consideration. Like James, the strength of Whitman’s voice coincided with a determination to prioritize the psychological wellbeing of himself and his neighbors. James’s assessment of Whitman’s message assumes new meaning when we explore the poet’s corpus as a whole: “The only sentiments he allowed himself to express were of the expansive order.”