The Power of Nonfiction


Show Me All Your Scars edited by Lee Gutkind

When it comes to the representation of insanity in fiction, I don’t think there’s been a novel that has One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest beat. Through the eyes of Chief Bromdem, you experience reality from the perspective of a broken, mentally deteriorated man who’s seen his peoples’ lands destroyed by a government that had already betrayed them. Of course, given that there literally were societal forces working against Chief, his story ties in well with the theme of the book; namely that those we consider to be insane might not be so insane at all. As Chief is awakened to this possibility by the irrepressible Randle McMurphy, he becomes more and more aware of his fellow patients and how in one way or another their problems aren’t just caused by chemical imbalances in the brain, but also by the fact that society had forsaken them. There’s much more to the book than this. Even if you’ve only seen the movie you’ll know that it’s a powerful anti-establishment tale that in some ways dwarfs the question of who is and isn’t insane. Nonetheless, the portraits of these individuals are some of the most striking aspects of the story. As it happens, the author Ken Kesey had worked as a porter in a mental institute. He based some of the characters on people he observed there and the novel actually includes sketches he drew of them. Nevertheless, as moving as some of the backstories in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest are, they’re still just narratives pieced together by an outsider. Actual accounts of mental illness as told by the people who suffered from them are as absent from the text as they often are from popular media outlets in general.

Show Me All Your Scars: True Stories of Living with Mental Illness is a collection of non-fiction essays that aims to address this along with a few other issues. As outlined in no less than three introductions, Karen Wolk Feinstein first puts forward her interest in exploring the experience of madness, as she calls it, from people who have experienced it. Congressman Patrick J. Kennedy draws attention to the importance of understanding these issues so that real political change can be made. And the editor Lee Gutkind details her hope that by giving a platform for people to speak about their issues, many others will be encouraged to talk about their own. All of this is to say, you’d be forgiven for feeling like it’s some sort of civic duty to read the book. Thankfully, once you get past all the formalities, the essays themselves are informative, moving and eye-opening. 

Across the twenty entries, you meet people who have suffered from schizophrenia, wildly out of control bipolar disorders, PTSD, eating disorders, obsessive-compulsive disorders, compulsions to self-harm, and people with long lineages of suicide and depression in their families.

Much like the people who introduce the book, their motivations for sharing their stories sometimes include a personal desire to put into words what exactly happened to them, but just as often it’s about sharing in the hopes that other people will feel empowered to share too. Personally speaking, I’ve been lucky to have a fairly decent lot in life and haven’t had to deal with any kind of severe mental illness, whether in myself or close family members, so while I didn’t exactly feel myself lacking in knowledge regarding the various psychological problems, it was another thing entirely to hear about them from the people who went through it all. Mother’s who are just one cup of spilt milk away from walking out on their kids, sons who cut the ropes loose from their brother’s necks only for they themselves to make the same suicide attempt many years later…

All of their experiences are written about with a level of depth and sensitivity that I couldn’t hope to replicate here and surprisingly enough, often in varying degrees of expertise in prose. That is to say, it would seem a large number of people selected for the collection have PhDs and MFA’s in literature and were well able to express themselves in essay form, some even choosing to do so in almost experimental types of writing. That said, for as much insight as this allowed the various writers to share, I did find that the collection largely skewed towards the highly educated, upper-middle-class type of writer. I imagine this is because the publisher sought submissions from an existing network of literary resources, whether through direct connections in New York or through an extended chain of literary magazines. And while I don’t think this makes the tragic stories included in the collection any less perceptive, it seems like an incredible oversight on the part of the publisher to skip over the extraordinary amount of individuals who would have ended up in prison or worse simply because they don’t have the same family and resources many of the more wealthy participants in the collection would have had. The reality is, how severe the repercussions of a mental illness can be are often tied to economic status and given the lack of support for people on the lower end, it’s a shame we don’t get to hear more from them.

Still, the main point of Show Me All Your Scars is clear. In one instance, a writer describes a conference she attended where a series of statistics were discussed in regards to mental health in America. Many people suffer from one issue or another, it seems, so many in fact, that in all likelihood the majority of people in the auditorium would have had to see a psychologist or counsellor at one time or another. However, when the audience was asked to raise their hands if they counted themselves among those who would’ve needed help, the room remained distinctly silent. Not one person in the whole crowd raised their hand. If you’re afraid to raise yours too, I highly recommend you check out this collection. And if you’re looking for more videos on books then check out my in-depth analysis on Slaughterhouse-5.


Simon Fay

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