Monday, May 21, 2012

Review: The Center Cannot Hold by Elyn R. Sacks

Reviewed by Christina

Published: 2007

Full Title: The Center Cannot Hold: My Journey Through Madness

It's about:  Elyn Saks, a brilliant professor and scholar, describes her inner schizophrenic life in this surprisingly inspiring memoir.

I thought:  I loved this book.  I think I should modify my Top Seven Inspirational People post, bump it up to eight and add Elyn R. Saks.  This lady is, first of all, incredibly intelligent.  She cares for others immensely and has dedicated a huge chunk of her career to developing material that argues for the rights of people with mental illness.  And, luckily for me (and all of us!) she wrote this honest, brave, and important book. 

The Center Cannot Hold is a perfect example of the idea I tried to get at with my Mental Illness in Fiction Reading List.  It is a text that attempts that noblest goal: to encourage human empathy in the reader.  Ms. Saks hopes to dispel the awful stigmas associated with schizophrenia- those enduring prejudices about people with thought disorders being dangerous, absolutely hopeless cases, people who can be discarded from functional society and labeled "crazy."

Anyway, I'm a big fan of this author and her work.  Here are a couple of interesting tidbits that struck me and/or changed my mind about something:
  • HIPAA.  I am now a believer in it.  It used to be not illegal for health care professionals to discuss patients' histories with other people!  At one point, an E.R. tech actually told Ms. Saks the name of another student at Yale who had suffered a psychotic episode.  And soon after that, a hospital told the school's administration about Ms. Saks' condition, effectively withdrawing her from law school without her consent.  (This was also before the Americans with Disabilities Act.) 
  • Speaking of consent, holy moly!  It apparently didn't exist for many American patients in the 1980's.  Ms. Saks was unwillingly committed to a hospital, restrained and in solitary confinement for days at a time, and force-fed medications.  I don't think I'm overstating this when I say: WTF?!?!  Contrast that with the laissez-faire attitude toward psychotic people in England during the same period, when Ms. Saks (who clearly needed antipsychotic medication) was allowed to stay in the hospital if she and her demons wanted to, but she didn't really receive any treatment other a recommendation for psychoanalysis.
  • Psychoanalysis, if you ask me, is generally a bunch of hooey.  I thought pretty much everyone believed this, so I was surprised when Ms. Saks described her own very positive experiences with it.  And she did soften my attitude a bit.  She argues for (and demonstrates her own need for) a combined regimen including medication and some sort of talk therapy.  And that, I have to admit, does make sense. 
SO.  If you have any interest at all in this subject or if you're hoping to relate more closely to people with schizophrenia, PLEASE read The Center Cannot Hold.  It's an vivid, insightful, and hopeful book.

Verdict: Stick it on the shelf.

Reading Recommendations:  In some very basic ways, this reminded me of Autobiography of a Schizophrenic Girl and An Unquiet Mind.  I liked it WAY better than either of them, though.

Warnings: Nothing I can remember.  Maybe one or two swears that I glossed over?  Nothing to deter you, really.

What I'm reading nextThe Robber Bride by Margaret Atwood