Mental Illness

MW by Osamu Tezuka

Date of Publication: Serialized 1976-1978 Biggu Komikku, Shogakkan (my edition: 2010, Vertical, Inc.)

Number of Pages: 582

Synopsis (from Amazon.com): During a boyhood excursion to one of the southern archipelagos near Okinawa, Yuki barely survived exposure to a poison gas stored at a foreign military facility. The leakage annihilated all of the island’s inhabitants but was promptly covered up by the authorities, leaving Yuki as an unacknowledged witness–one whose sense of right and wrong, however, the potent nerve agent managed to obliterate.

Now, fifteen years later, Yuki is a social climber of Balzacian proportions, infiltrating the worlds of finance and politics by day while brutally murdering children and women by night–perversely using his Kabuki-honed skills as a female impersonator to pass himself off as the women he’s killed. His drive, however, will not be satiated with a promotion here and a rape there. Michio Yuki has a far more ominous objective: obtaining MW, the ultimate weapon that spared his life but robbed him of all conscience.

There are only two men with any hope of stopping him: one, a brilliant public prosecutor who struggles to build a case against the psychopath; the other, a tormented Catholic priest, Iwao Garai, who shares Yuki’s past–and frequently his bed.

Review: Osamu Tezuka is often referred to as “the godfather of manga”, and his prolific career lasted decades and includes some very familiar titles, such as Astro Boy, Metropolis, and Black Jack. For the most part, his stories feature friendly and somewhat goofy characters, but MW is very different. The story is dark and disturbing, with no real hero to be found. But Tezuka manages to make even the psychotic and sadistic Yuki seem tragic and wronged, as if none of his crimes are his fault but are instead the result of events outside his control. At one point, I even found myself rooting for Yuki, as he struggled to find out who was responsible for covering up the MW leak.

Tezuka weaves many themes through his story and tackles difficult subjects: the involvement of the United States in Japan, the acceptability of homosexuality, and the pressures of the business world. For those unfamiliar with manga, MW is a great place to start as it tells a compelling story through Tezuka’s amazing artwork, deep character development, and even a delightful yet sinister twist at the end. Overall, it’s a great read!

Rating: 10/10

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Rashōmon and Seventeen Other Stories by Ryūnosuke Akutagawa

Date of Publication: 2006, Penguin Classics

Number of Pages (including notes): 268

Description: Considered to be one of the greatest national writers of Japan, Ryūnosuke Akutagawa had a short but brilliant career in the early twentieth century. This collection includes some of his best known short stories, such as “Rashōmon”, “Spinning Gears”, “Loyalty”, and “The Nose”, as well as some of his lesser-known works. The stories range from humorous, to historical, to agonizingly autobiographical. The Penguin Classics edition also includes a wonderfully insightful introduction by Haruki Murakami.

Review: For much of Akutagawa’s early career, he delved into Japan’s literary past. The story “Loyalty” is a complex tale based on a true event that took place during the Tokugawa period, when the young head of a noble family went insane, creating a crisis among his samurai retainers. Samurai were meant to be loyal to the death, but that loyalty also extended to the Shogun. If one’s master posed a thread to the Shogun, where should your loyalty lie? This is the problem that faces two very different retainers, each of whom must make an almost impossible decision. The story explores not only loyalty, but the issues of sanity, respect, obligation, and shame.

Some of the more humorous stories include “Horse Legs” and “The Story of a Head That Fell Off”, both involving dead men who suffer terrible humiliations, one at the hand of some spiritual bureaucrats, and the other because of a medical miracle. But the final section of the book, which include those selections that tell Akutagawa’s own story, is possibly the most moving and compelling. Akutagawa’s childhood was difficult, as his mother went insane shortly after his birth. He was afraid of mental illness for the remainder of his life, and the final story of the book, “Spinning Gears” tells the tale of his last months spent in depression and constant anxiety. He suffered from insomnia, hallucinations, and constantly worried about his own sanity. It is the final passage of the story that conveys Akutagawa’s overwhelming despair:

I don’t have the strength to keep writing this. To go on living with this feeling is painful beyond description. Isn’t there someone kind enough to strangle me in my sleep”

The story was published posthumously in 1927, the year Akutagawa took his own life. The story progresses toward that inevitable conclusion, and gives us an insight into Akutagawa’s tortured mind.

Rating: 10/10

Girl, Interrupted by Susanna Kaysen

Date of Publication: 1993, Vintage Books

Number of Pages: 169

Synopsis (from back cover): In 1967, after a session with a psychiatrist she’d never seen before, eighteen-year-old Susanna Kaysen was put in a taxi and sent to McLean Hospital. She spent most of the next two years on the ward for teenage girls in a psychiatric hospital as renowned for its famous clientele – Sylvia Plath, Robert Lowell, James Taylor, and Ray Charles – as for its progressive methods of treating those who could afford its sanctuary.

Kaysen’s memoir encompasses horror and razor-edged perception while providing vivid portraits of her fellow patients and their keepers. It is a brilliant evocation of a “parallel universe” set within the kaleidoscopically shifting landscape of the late sixties. Girl, Interrupted is a clear-sighted, unflinching document that gives lasting and specific dimension to our definitions of sane and insane, mental illness and recovery.

Review: First, be warned: this is nothing like the movie. Some of the characters are the same, but this book does not follow the same linear, safe direction as the film. Most of the events of the movie don’t even take place in the book. This is a memoir of the truest sense, in that the author explores simply her own understandings of her experience, her illness, and her surroundings. Kaysen’s diagnosis of Borderline Personality Disorder, although not discussed until the final chapters, is the overall theme of this book. Kaysen, like many of her fellow patients, is straddling the line between sanity and insanity, between the world outside the hospital and the world inside. She identifies with both the other patients and the nurses, who each represent the world they inhabit. Even though she feels a kinship with her fellow “insane” patients, she also longs for the sense of normalcy that the nurses bring in from the outside.

Although she is declared “recovered” upon her discharge in 1969, Kaysen freely admits that once you’re insane, that other world never really disappears. It hovers around the edges, and even affects people who have never been inside a hospital, as if she carries a “crazy cloud” around with her. Kaysen explores the difference between insanity of the brain and insanity of the mind, arguing that each need to be treated differently. She also includes actual documents from her medical records from her time at the hospital, which provide an interesting backdrop for the narrative of the so-called “insane” person. This isn’t The Bell Jar. There is no real mental breakdown, no literary examination of one’s own insanity. Although Kaysen does explore her own illness to a degree, this is mostly an exploration of the dual worlds that mentally ill people must inhabit: the world of the sane, and the world of the insane.

Rating: 8/10

The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

Date of Publication: 1963, Harper & Row

Number of Pages: 244

Synopsis (from back cover): The Bell Jar chronicles the crack-up of Esther Greenwood: brilliant, beautiful, enormously talented, and successful, but slowly going under – maybe for the last time. Sylvia Plath masterfully draws the reader into Esther’s breakdown with such intensity that Esther’s insanity becomes completely real and even rational, as probable and accessible an experience as going to the movies. Such deep penetration into the dark and harrowing corners of the psyche is an extraordinary accomplishment and has made The Bell Jar a haunting American classic.

Review: Probably the thing that scares me the most about this book is how much I relate to Esther, the brilliantly mad heroine. Of course, it’s not her brilliance to which I relate, but her madness. Sylvia Plath indeed makes Esther’s breakdown seem like the most reasonable thing in the world. Esther is battered left and right by people’s expectations of her, as a woman and as a writer. All of these expectations are burdens, weighing her down until she finally falls into a dark hole. It’s 1953, and for a woman who wants to define her life by her work and her mind, the pressures of marriage and womanhood are immense. Esther is surrounded by talented girls who want nothing more than a rich husband and children. Esther doesn’t fit into that mold, and she is unable to create her own.

Sylvia Plath uses the story of a fig tree to illustrate how Esther sees the many different possible paths in her life. One fig is the talented poet, another is the doting wife and mother, and another is the powerful editor….it goes on and on. Many people have struggled with the same thing. Esther feels pulled in many different directions (as do I). Her descent into madness throws a wrench into her plans, forcing her to deal with the imperfect person she really is. Plath uses an almost causal tone when describing Esther’s breakdown. Everything is stated matter-of-factly, demonstrating how even the mentally ill can think rationally.

The book deserves its place among the best of the American classics. Plath was a literary genius whose own struggles with mental illness gave her poetry and prose a tragic and haunting voice.

Rating: 10/10

The Hours by Michael Cunningham

Date of Publication: 1998, Picador USA

Number of Pages: 226

Synopsis (from back cover): Passionate, profound, and deeply moving, The Hours is the story of three women: Clarissa Vaughan, who one New York morning goes about planning a party in honor of a beloved friend; Laura Brown, who in a 1950s Los Angeles suburb slowly begins to feel the constraints of a perfect family and home; and Virginia Woolf, recuperating with her husband in a London suburb, and beginning to write Mrs. Dalloway. By the end of the novel, the stories have intertwined, and finally come together in an act of subtle and haunting grace, demonstrating Michael Cunningham’s deep empathy for his characters as well as the extraordinary resonance of his prose.

Review: I had several reasons to read this book. First, Mrs. Dalloway is one of my favorite books and the film adaptation of The Hours is one of my favorite movies. So, I was prepared for something profound, but I was not expecting a book that would speak to me the way this one did. Michael Cunningham has a way of describing his characters’ thoughts and feelings that makes me feel like he’s inside my own mind. The fears, sensations, and oddities of Virginia, Laura, and Clarissa are so much like my own and it forced private feelings that I have never really acknowledged to come to the surface. Reading this book was a a very personal experience for me, but I believe that any reader will be able to enjoy it. Cunningham explores an incredible variety of emotions and demonstrates a unique understanding of human nature. I would recommend this book to pretty much everyone I know.

Rating: 10/10

Poisoned Love by Melanie Cane

Date of Publication: 2008, Bascom Hill Publishing Group

Number of Pages: 395

Synopsis (from back cover): In 1993, Jimmy Breslin wrote a front page story for New York Newsday, about Melanie Cane, a troubled young psychiatrist who “let love take her too far.” Fifteen years later, Melanie tells her side of the story in Poisoned Love, a heartbreaking and staggering account of her spiral into the depths of mental illness and what she did under the guise of love.

With extraordinary courage, Melanie provides intimate access to the thoughts and feelings leading to her desperate act, as well as an unvarnished account of her subsequent psychiatric treatment and the legal and social consequences of her crime.

Melanie’s steady progress toward recovery involves an emerging understanding of the relationship between her various diagnoses and her attachment to an abusive mentally ill father.

Her story teaches people about survival and success in the face of severe mental illness.

Review: I received this book only a few days ago, courtesy of a very nice woman at Bascom Hill Publishing Group. I had known the gist of the story (woman goes crazy, poisons her ex, gets committed, gets better), but I was unprepared for how intimate and tragic the telling of that story was going to be. Suffering from depression myself, I am unfortunately aware of the difficulties of living with a mental illness, but the heartrending pain that Melanie suffered as her rationality crumbled around her is far beyond anything like a run-of-the-mill mental illness. She had everything stacked against her: a severely mentally ill and abusive father, a resentful and angry mother, and an emotionally immature and abusive boyfriend. The rapidity and the extent of her recovery is staggering. She came out of her experience a better and more well-adjusted person than she had been before her breakdown. To those that would judge her (and have judged her), I would ask this: how would you have coped with the immense betrayal, pain, and abuse that Melanie went through? To retreat from reality seemed to be the only thing her mind would allow her to do.

At times, the writing does seem a bit amateurish, and at times the author’s descriptions of her illness and conversations with her doctors struck me as something from a psychiatry textbook…but then again, how else does a medical doctor explain her illness? The flow of the story also seemed stilted to me. Details were left out and referred to later as something that the reader should have known, and memory flashbacks were sometimes inserted into the story at awkward times. But all in all, this book is an engaging read, as Melanie allows her readers a most intimate glimpse into her pain and crumbling sanity. I would recommend this to everyone, as everyone can benefit from getting to know this highly intelligent and courageous woman.

Rating: 9/10

Aberrations by Penelope Przekop

Date of Publication: 2008, Emerald Book Company

Number of Pages: 241

Synopsis (from back cover): Twenty-one-year-old narcoleptic Angel Duet knows her father harbors secrets. he loves and protects her, but his suspicious refusal to discuss her mother’s death drives Angel to worship as image created from the little history she does have: her father’s sketchy stories and her mother’s treasured photography, studies of clouds that have hung in their foyer for more than twenty years.

When her father’s girlfriend moves in, the photographs come down, and Angel’s search for truth becomes an obsession. As she struggles to uncover the past and gain control over the narcolepsy that often fogs her world, Angel descends into a dizzying realm of drugs, adultery, and confused desire that further obscures reality.

When Angel exposes a history that she could never have imagined, she discovers her entire life has been anchored in lies. Accepting the truth, once found, is the key to understanding herself, her family, and her life. To truly awaken, Angel must realize that sometimes the gifts we receive are not what we want – and only with time do we see the truth.

Review: I have read quite a few books this year already, but this has to be the best to date. I was immediately pulled into the story, from the very first page, and was completely engaged until the end. The characters are fully developed and quite original, as is the idea behind the story. Not knowing much about narcolepsy, I found the treatment of this condition in the story very satisfying. There’s no medical jargon to deal with, and everything is dealt with on an emotional level. Angel seems to channel Sylvia Plath’s Esther Greenwood in her torment and she is surrounded by friends who either aid her or hamper her in her quest to find the truth about her mother.

Przekop manages to seamlessly weave two stories together: her relationship with her father as she searches for her mother, and her relationships with others as she struggles to deal with her narcolepsy. As a bridge between these two stories, Carla, Angel’s father’s girlfriend, is the great mover of the story as she forces Angel to see truths about herself which motivate her to keep going. Although their relationship is strained, Angel and Carla are really the two seekers.

In the end, I found this book to be extremely satisfying. Przekop is an immensely talented storyteller with the ability to create unforgettable characters. As a first book, Aberrations is an amazing accomplishment, and I can’t wait to see more from Przekop.

Rating: 10/10