The Collected Schizophrenias
“Esmé Weijun Wang is poised to become a major writer, and this is her origin story,” said Katharine Coldiron in the Los Angeles Review of Books. Unfortunately for Wang, schizoaffective disorder is a big part of that story. Fortunately for readers, “the prose is so beautiful and descriptions so vivid that even if it were not mostly about an underexamined condition, it would be easy to recommend.” Wang, who was named to Granta’s Best Young American Novelists list in 2017, had been diagnosed four years earlier with the illness she calls “the f---ed-up offspring of manic depression and schizophrenia.” It manifests differently in different people; in Wang it has triggered episodes of gibbering and catatonia as well as delusions that her co-workers were robots or that she was already dead. She has, at a young age, lived many lives.
Wang doesn’t instantly come across as mentally ill, said Ilana Masad in NPR.org. A child of the Midwest born to immigrant parents, she attended Yale and then Stanford, where she was managing the university’s Mood and Anxiety Disorders Laboratory when she started a fashion blog. She’s invariably stylish in public appearances, and she describes her obsession with looking sharp as a coping mechanism. “I don’t want to be lumped in with the screaming man on the bus or the woman who claims she’s the reincarnation of God,” she writes. Such honesty is bracing, but the greater gift of this book is that it overcomes one of the scariest parts of having a disorder people can’t see: It “conveys the indescribable through language.”
The book’s 13 essays are “difficult walks through largely uncharted territory,” but Wang “makes brilliant company,” said Scott Cheshire in the Los Angeles Times. She can be blunt and funny, but she regularly draws on her clinical background to bring authority to her insights—not just about schizoaffective disorder but also about her struggles with PTSD and late-stage Lyme disease. “Her essays are all varied lenses on what it is to be one kind of human, to be her,” but they provide “a new and welcome map” for the terra incognita of psychosis. As a fellow sufferer, “I thank her for that.” ■