Girl, Interrupted by Susanna Kaysen: In this famous memoir of mental illness, author Susanna Kaysen chronicles her stint in a psychiatric hospital at age 18. She received a diagnosis of borderline personality disorder, a condition largely overlooked and misunderstood by the American mainstream, and relates all the intimate details back to readers. Not only does Kaysen’s autobiography shed light on BPD’s many nuances and symptoms, she also critiques the mental health care system.
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Prozac Nation by Elizabeth Wurtzel: Major depressive disorder descended upon writer Elizabeth Wurtzel during her college and young professional days, after a lifetime of loneliness and longing for an absent father. Like many individuals suffering from this agonizingly common condition, she turned towards substance abuse and even a suicide attempt as a means of self-medicating. But a combination of steel will and a determined doctor set Wurtzel back on the difficult road to recovery.
Just Checking by Emily Colas: Just Checking covers Emily Colas’ life with severe obsessive-compulsive disorder, starting with her childhood and moving up to marriage, motherhood and an emotionally-ripping divorce. Rituals and compulsions meant to quell her fears eventually isolate the people she loves most, and it isn’t until she hits the bottom when psychiatric treatment becomes an option. Much of the memoir also covers how OCD severely impacts college students, sometimes driving them towards substance abuse as she once did.
Darkness Visible by William Styron: After a lifetime of alcohol abuse and sedatives, the celebrated author of Sophie’s Choice and The Confessions of Nat Turner discovered he suffered from depression. Such a revelation, popping up in his 60s, guided him down a path of self-analysis and forced him to analyze of his experiences up to that point. Comparing and contrasting his melancholy with that of other famous figures who struggled with depression brings peace and reflection.
Skin Game by Caroline Kettlewell: Self-mutilation, often (but not always) involving cutting, crops up as a sadly common method of dealing with numerous psychiatric illnesses. In this emotional, deeply personal autobiography, Caroline Kettlewell explains how slicing herself with razor blades brought solace during her isolated childhood. As of its publication, she was still coming to terms with the issues inspiring the painful actions.
Musical Chairs by Jen Knox: A melange of family psychiatric history and struggling to fit into American suburbia sits as the main theme of Jen Knox’s Musical Chairs. Both factors contribute to the author’s nightmarish encasement in substance abuse and sexual objectification, but she eventually realizes how much she really needs her loved ones. Knox grapples with the myriad emotions attached to removing herself out of isolation and into treatment and resolution.
Drinking: A Love Story by Caroline Knapp: Untreated and unacknowledged mental illness often — but, of course, not always — leads to substance abuse issues as a means of alleviating the anguish. Caroline Knapp slowly succumbed to alcoholism after struggling with anorexia, both of which were unfortunately exacerbated by her high-pressure parents. Until age 36, this Brown-educated journalist kept the demons suppressed from employers and loved ones before finally checking into rehab.
Electroboy by Andy Behrman: Electroshock therapy has a very negative reputation, but in reality it can actually help patients suffering from a number of different psychiatric conditions. Andy Behrman’s manic depression (now known as bipolar disorder) drove him to actions both thrilling and utterly destructive, ultimately landing him in prison when his confidence became so overwhelming he forged paintings. Once he resigns himself to doing whatever it takes to feel well and whole, a combination of the right medicine and electroshock proves successful.
Sickened by Julie Gregory: Julie Gregory spent her childhood forced into illness because of her mother’s Munchausen by proxy disorder. In the very first memoir of its type, she chronicles the horror of constant physical abuse and how she weathered it hoping to please mommy. Gregory learned of MBP in college, and from there confronted the lie that had been foisted on her since birth.
When Rabbit Howls by Truddi Chase: Because of childhood sexual abuse and exploitation, the author began retreating inside herself and displaying the symptoms of multiple personality disorder — a condition oftentimes wrongfully confused with schizophrenia. Her memoir was one of the first to address the issue from a patient’s perspective rather than that of the doctor, and proved unique in her refusal to condense the different personalities down. Rather, Chase worked towards organizing them into a cohesive team dynamic.
A Drinking Life by Pete Hamill: Sexual frustration and anxiety drove writer and journalist Pete Hamill to begin abusing alcohol in adolescence. All he wanted in life was escape, and the desire sent him on even more voyages — many of them reckless or poorly considered – than the ones booze provided. Many note that this memoir isn’t exactly a detailed peek into alcoholism and regaining self-respect, but it is notable for its influence on Caroline Knapp’s Drinking: A Love Story.
Lucky by Alice Sebold: Not all mental illnesses come from trauma; not all traumas inspire mental illness, but the two still walk hand-in-hand in plenty of instances. Bestselling author Alice Sebold was brutally raped during her freshman year at Syracuse, and viscerally bristled when a cop told her she should feel “lucky” not to have been murdered like an earlier female student. The incident, along with her upbringing as the child of alcoholics, thrust her headlong into depression and a brutal heroin addiction.
Stalking Irish Madness by
Patrick Tracey: Because family history and genetics oftentimes dictate the mental health and stability of succeeding generations, it makes sense that many memoirs covering the subject delve deeply into such themes. Schizophrenia plagues Patrick Tracey’s sisters, and he devotes time and resources to tracing the diseases’ origins in his lineage. While he dredges up plenty of ambiguity and even more questions, the book does serve as an honest glimpse into an incredibly misunderstood condition.
Paper (150 points): In addition to learning about various mental illnesses from the textbook, you will also be asked to
read a book written by a person who has personally experienced a mental illness. I hope that this experience will provide
you with a greater depth of understanding than can be gained from a textbook alone. Papers will be submitted to the
The paper should be formatted with 1-inch margins, 12-point Times New Roman font, and double spaced. The paper
should be 4-5 pages in length and follow this outline:
Part 1 (25 points): What did you know about the disorder before taking this class?
What were your beliefs and assumptions? Where did you learn what you knew about
Part 2(50 points): Provide a summary of what you learned about the disorder in class
and from the text book. Please use your own words. Do NOT quote the textbook.
Describe the diagnostic criteria. Explain at least one theory as it applies to etiology and
treatment of the disorder.
Part 3 (50 points): Provide a summary of what you learned about the disorder from
reading the first-person account. Please use your own words. Do NOT quote the book.
Compare and contrast what you learned from the first-person account to what you
knew coming into the class. Compare and contrast what you learned from the first-
person account to what you learned from the textbook.
Part 4 (25 points): Synthesize all of what you now know about the disorder into a brief
(4-5 sentences) summary of what you would share with the average person with the
question, “So what is schizophrenia (fill in your topic area)?”
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