Happy #BellLetsTalk day. While we’re talking, I hope that we can look at this day as a challenge to listen.
Literature, in so many ways, offers us the chance to peer into experiences different from our own, thoughtfully, at our own pace, and in ways that don’t impose on the life of another person. When we read, we can learn about a particular moment in time, experience, condition, or emotion that’s lived and we can use what we learn to be better advocates and allies.
As someone who strongly advocates for providing support and services for mental health and well-being, I’ve put together a list of texts that have helped me with regards to better understanding and articulating to others the messiness and pain often associated with mental health struggles. For those of you looking to learn, I hope they help you as much as they continue to help me.
1. “The Yellow Wallpaper” (1892), Charlotte Perkins Gilman
“Dear John! He loves me very dearly and hates to have me sick. I tried to have a real earnest talk with him the other day, and tell him how I wish he would let me go and make a visit to Cousin Henry and Julia. But he said I wasn’t able to go, nor able to stand it after I got there; and I did not make a very good case for myself, for I was crying before I had finished.”
When I encounter a person who holds strong views about the relevance of mental distress or mental illness, I often direct them to Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s short story, “The Yellow Wallpaper.” Part of this decision has to do with the fact that it isn’t a novel. “The Yellow Wallpaper” is the kind of story you can read during a lunch break and it’s incredibly powerful. The story is told through the hidden journal entries of an unnamed woman battling mental health issues, or what her physician husband calls, “temporary nervous depression – a slight hysterical tendency.” She relates her feelings of pain, tiredness, and frustration in failing to live up to external expectations.
Perhaps, most eye-opening, is the fact that it was published more than 100 years ago, demonstrating that the fight for conversations and action regarding mental illness aren’t as new as some try to say.
2. The Awakening (1899), Kate Chopin
“She went on and on. She remembered the night she swam far out, and recalled the terror that seized her at the fear of being unable to regain the shore. She did not look back now, but went on and on, thinking of the blue-grass meadow that she had traversed when a little child, believing that it had no beginning and no end.”
Like many of the texts on this list, Kate Chopin’s The Awakening explores the relationship between mental illness, external pressure, and institutional failure. The protagonist, Edna, wants to live a fuller life, but struggles because of expectations for her to conform to being a homemaker and mother. Importantly, mental health within this text is used as a means of stigmatizing Edna – male characters use her displays of “mental illness” to create false rumours and isolate her from community. To simply hold the freedom to exist as she is, Edna must suffer in solitude.
3. Mrs. Dalloway (1925), Virginia Woolf
“She felt somehow very like him — the young man who had killed himself. She felt glad that he had done it; thrown it away.”
It’s difficult to read Mrs. Dalloway without considering the circumstances of Virginia Woolf’s life. Woolf spent long periods of time in isolation and often wrote about her feelings of mental distress. For me, Mrs. Dalloway encapsulates the pressure and messiness of social expectation, anxiety, pain, and isolation. The novel’s protagonist, Clarissa Dalloway, is a politician’s wife recovering from an illness. Many of her internalizations address feelings of guilt, regret, and sorrow. Juxtaposing this narration is the story of Septimus, a war hero struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Through Septimus, the text explores institutional and medical procedures, as doctors make ignorant decisions. While both of these characters are starkly different, they remain connected through their silence – no one knows how much they are struggling.
4. The Catcher in the Rye (1951), J.D. Salinger
“Anyway, I keep picturing all these little kids playing some game in this big field of rye and all. Thousands of little kids, and nobody’s around – nobody big, I mean – except me. And I’m standing on the edge of some crazy cliff. What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff – I mean if they’re running and they don’t look where they’re going I have to come out from somewhere and catch them. That’s all I do all day. I’d just be the catcher in the rye and all. I know it’s crazy, but that’s the only thing I’d really like to be.”
The Catcher in the Rye was one of my favourite books in high school – there was something so raw and uncontained about the protagonist, Holden Caufield. He’s unapologetic and real. What many people fail to remember is that Holden witnesses not one but two traumatic deaths in his lifetime and never really receives any kind of emotional support. For me, Holden’s trajectory demonstrates the struggle for young people to find understanding adult role models. After all, at its simplest, Catcher in the Rye is the story of a young man with struggles and potential, who experiences abandonment when he needs help most.
5. The Bell Jar (1963), Sylvia Plath
“The silence depressed me. It wasn’t the silence of silence. It was my own silence.”
Similar to Virginia Woolf, this is another text infused with the author’s lived experiences with mental illness. Sylvia Plath published poetry that accounted for these experiences during most of her lifetime; however, The Ball Jar – her only novel – remains one of her most well-known works. Many who have read this text will mention the parallels between the protagonist, Esther, and Plath – how they both wrote for magazines, experienced hospitalization, and so on. These comparisons only grew after Plath’s suicide, one month after the novel’s publication. Regardless of whether or not the experiences are the same or inspired, The Bell Jar offers a raw account of what it feels like to endure mental distress and pain on a day-to-day basis.
6. Why Should I Have All the Grief? (1969) Phyllis Gotlieb
“The marks on her body externalized the scars on his spirit; her liquid, loser’s eyes were windows looking out on days of torture and filth. He added her hurt to his guilt and kept going with a heavier burden. But one thing all the force of his reason could never tell him was whether by neglect he had shamefully wounded a living person, or merely stepped back from the edge of a precipice.”
One of the most amazing things about science fiction is its ability to explore the unsayable. In many ways, those who struggle with their mental health and well-being experience a pain that cannot be related to something of this world or what we know. Though Why Should I Have All the Grief? is not a science fiction text, Gotlieb’s famous command of the genre and its strengths shine through.
The novel follows Heinz Dorfman, an Auschwitz survivor who has kept his story, nightmares, and survivor’s guilt to himself for over 18 years. The silence takes a toll on his marriage and his ability to be in the world with others. When Heinz’ uncle arrives in Toronto and asks Heinz to take part in a traditional Jewish Funeral ceremony, Heinz must confront his surviving family and the trauma he buried. Without giving away too much, one of the most memorable moments in this text is when Heinz confronts the pain of his past with the pain of his present, in what can only be described as a flashback-flash forward chapter. The fragmentation of memory and consciousness is one of the best portrayals of mental distress I have even come across in fiction.
7. Beloved (1987), Toni Morrison
“124 was spiteful. Full of a baby’s venom.”
Unlike some of the other texts I’ve listed, there is a causal link between the protagonist, Sethe, and her mental distress: she is haunted by her decision to kill her daughter before being captured by slave owners and is also haunted by the intergenerational traumas of slavery. The guilt that comes with being a survivor eventually manifests into a ghost that lives in her home.
Notably, the longer she goes on avoiding her pain, the stronger the ghost manifests. For me, one of the most powerful moments in the novel comes towards the end, when the community comes together to address Sethe’s experiences of haunting, a reminder that there is strength in support and allyship.
8. The Glass Castle, Jeanette Walls
“We were always doing the skedaddle usually in the middle of the night. Dad was so sure a posse of Federal investigators was on our trail that he smoked his unfiltered cigarette from the wrong end. That way, he explained, he burned up the brand name, so that the people who were tracking them down would find unidentifiable butts, instead of Pall Malls which could be traced to him.”
For those who enjoy a good Heather’s Pick, I recommend The Glass Castle. Offering a more contemporary perspective, this memoir captures all the humour, pain, dysfunction, and love of a family affected by addiction and mental illness. One of the most important aspects of this memoir that often gets overlooked is the fact the problems are layered. As it is for many families struggling to support someone who is mentally ill, situations that may seem clear-cut on the outside are more nuanced and painful. Jeanette Walls does a careful job of sharing those layers – the frustrations, anger, confusion, and pain – without demonizing her loved ones.
9. Swing Low: A Life (1999), Miriam Toews
“There are no windows within the dark house of depression through which to see others, only mirrors.”
This is not the first time I’ve recommended Swing Low: A Life and it won’t be the last: this text is one of the most honest accounts of mental illness I’ve come across yet. Right from the beginning, Toews recognizes her privileges and limits, before sharing her father’s life story and suicide (and assuming his voice in the process). There are so many transgressions in this text – taking on the voice of another, for instance, holds its risks – but it is what a friend of mine once referred to as a “beautiful transgression.” She shares these experiences to give voice to families and people who often suffer with mental illness in silence. Swing Low: A Life is a must-read, especially for those who have lost someone as a result of their struggle to live.
10. Birdie (2015), Tracey Lindberg
“Sometimes when you see something every day you forget its mystery.”
Tracey Lindberg’s debut text, Birdie, is an incredible example of a young, Cree-Metis woman who endures it all, depicting her pain, her strength, her struggle, and will to live in what I can only describe as a narrative process. Birdie doesn’t have the same straight, clean narration that some of the earlier texts listed follow, but instead pulls the reader right into the moment.
Despite the pain and violence of this text, one of its most notable points is its use of humour as a survivor’s tool. Birdie is not a victim of her circumstances; they are only one part of a captivating story.