A schizophrenic's room at St. Elizabeth Hospital
While there are countless autobiographies by writers who have lost their sanity, memoirs of schizophrenia are a rarer breed. In moments of florid psychosis, schizophrenics can become so self-conscious about how they use words that they lose the ability to communicate. Everyday phrases seem unfamiliar, threatening, or absurd. As the psychoanalyst Hilde Bruch wrote, “The poet is a master of language, the schizophrenic is a slave to it.” Below is a list of six memoirs by writers who reveal the limits of language by chronicling their descent into madness.
For a whole year, Perceval, the son of a British prime minister, “scarcely uttered a syllable, or did a single act” without first being instructed to do so by the Lord or his messengers. Dutifully, Perceval suffocated himself with a pillow, threw himself on the ground, waltzed around his room singing, and smacked his fellow mental patients with “precision and decision.” After several months in an asylum in the early 1830s, he surmised that his madness stemmed from his understanding of language: When God’s messengers told him to throw himself to the ground, they only meant “collect yourself.” They spoke metaphorically, but Perceval had interpreted their words literally. “The lunatic,” he concludes, “mistakes a poetic train of thought for the reality.”
Schreber’s 1903 memoirs, which have been analyzed by Freud, Jung, and Deleuze, read like a postmodern novel. A former judge in Dresden, Schreber approached his blossoming delusions—that his organs were leaking out of his body, that he was turning into a woman with wide, fleshy hips—with both studious skepticism and terror. He tried to avoid using the word I because it embarrassed him; the idea of being an “I,” a self, struck him as absurd. He could not admire a butterfly without wondering, first, whether it had been spontaneously created for his enjoyment and, second, whether he still knew the meaning of the word butterfly. Each time he spoke, he heard a flurry of mocking voices demanding that he express himself more clearly. It pained Schreber to realize that he could never say anything that would be more than “approximately correct.”
Many of the entries in Nijinsky’s 1936 diary were composed as the dancer sat in his bedroom jotting down thoughts while his wife moved discontentedly about the house. His notes circle around just a handful of obsessions: whether his wife loves him and wants to have sex, his lack of money, and his revulsion at (and desire for) meat. His mind flits from one association to the next, with little connective thread. He gets lost in his own expansive metaphors, and the boundaries between him and the people he describes collapse. “My mind is so developed that I understand people without words,” he writes. “I see their actions and understand everything. I understand everything. I can do everything. I am a peasant. I am a factory worker. I am a servant. I am a gentleman. I am an aristocrat. I am a tsar. I am an Emperor. I am God.”
From early childhood, Renee had access to a realm she called “unreality.” Like Antoine Roquentin in Sartre’s Nausea, she sees ordinary objects as purposeless yet threatening: They take on a life of their own. When she tries to calm herself by repeating the names of everything she encounters—“chair, jug, table, it is a chair”—she hears only hollow, meaningless sounds. This slim volume, compiled in 1951 by Renee’s psychologist, Marguerite Sechehaye, offers a fascinating account of the young girl’s emotional and linguistic collapse, but the story of her recovery reads like an advertisement for the miracles of Freudian theory. In the second half of the narrative, Renee works through her problems by calling her therapist “Mama” and pretending to drink milk from her breasts.
For seven years O’Brien worked for a bureaucratic, mind-deadening firm called the Knox Company—what this company produces is never clear. Then she has a psychotic break, quits her job, and hallucinates that the universe is governed by the rules of the corporate office place. The goal of life is to “make points” and accumulate as much power as possible. For six months, O’Brien imagines that the world is divided into “operators,” humans “with a type of head formation which permits [them] to explore and influence the mentality of others” and “things,” employees or subservient people who dumbly and fearfully follow the operators’ commands.
A professor of law and psychology at the University of Southern California, Saks has had a brilliant academic career (she received graduate degrees from Oxford and Yale), despite severe periods of psychosis, which she tried to hide from her professors. In her worst episodes, she would stare blankly at the pages of books she had once adored but found the text was now meaningless. She pressed her hands to the sides of her head because she worried that her brain would explode and her thoughts would splatter the library walls. Her speech took on the eerie cadences of a nursery rhyme. “I’m feeling a little stress,” she recalls telling one doctor. “But it’s probably just my imagination. Pation. Which is related to being both patient and a patient. Don’t you think? Pink?”
Rachel Aviv is a writer living in Brooklyn.