We talked some about literary and cinematic depictions of mental illness (reading The Ruin Season I thought particularly of Ken Bruen's The Hackman Blues and Gerard Donovan's Julius Winsome) and I asked him for a piece discussing some of his favorites.
And that's what follows.
Look for The Ruin Season when it drops next week from Perpetual Motion Machine Publishing.
Broken Mirrors: Mental Illness in Fiction and Film
by Kristopher Triana
As an author with extreme bipolar disorder, I’m often astounded by how poorly mental illness is portrayed in fiction. Movies and television are particularly guilty of misrepresenting sickness of the mind, demonizing schizophrenics as serial killers and mocking bipolar people by making them the but of jokes in terrible comedies like Welcome to Me. Books often do a better job at portraying the subject with more accuracy and sensitivity, but novels are also often ripe with mean-spirited clichés that only further the social stigma of been afflicted by such a condition.
While I tend to just classify myself as bipolar, the fact is that I’ve suffer from bipolar disorder/schizoaffective disorder and intermittent explosive disorder all of my life but, because of the shaming stigma, I have kept it relatively secret until recently, as the truth about my condition has been revealed through my own fiction; partly to give a more serious representation of these disorders, and partly for my own catharsis.
But over the years, there have been some glimmers that have poked through the hackneyed debris, films and novels that depict mentally ill characters not just as murderous psychopaths and neurotic eccentrics, but as relatable protagonists. These wonderful pieces of fiction are not only entertaining, they give their audience an authentic look into the swallowing abyss of madness.
And there are other films that do an excellent job with individual disorders.
Matchstick Men is a solid film, not just for being an intriguing crime story, but also for its exceptional depiction of an obsessive-compulsive drifter. Some may find Nicolas Cage scrubbing his house from top to bottom as comical, but I don’t feel like the movie is encouraging the audience to laugh at these scenes, it’s all just a result of the stigma. In my opinion, Matchstick Men makes a point to show just how crippling such a disorder can be.
While these films do not represent the mentally ill as horror movie clichés, that isn’t to say that they’re not scary films. They are. Mental illness is a scary thing, certainly the scariest thing that’s ever happened to me. It’s terrifying to have your world completely distorted. You become trapped in a cyclonic, waking nightmare, fearing invisible enemies, conspiracies and experiments. You may attack your closest friends. Your outbursts can destroy relations and cost you your job. Worst of all, if and when you realize you’re mentally ill, you begin to feel the weight of the stigma, and the paralyzing fear of wondering if you’ll ever be sane again. A mental disorder leaves deep emotional scars that you wear where no one else can see.
“What if I’m wrong? I’ve got a condition. I get confused sometimes. What if I’ve imagined all of this? What if I’ve finally turned into everything they always said I was gonna turn into? A maniac. A psycho killer.”
This shows us that even an outrageous comic book film can delve into the subtle nuances of disorders. The mentally ill on screen don’t always have to be serial killers and quirky weirdos.
And then there are the novels, which are usually superior because the written word allows greater access to the core of the human mind and heart. Films like Affliction and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest are excellent films because the novels they’re based on have excellent stories.
Other books that come to mind are Vladimir Nabokov’s The Eye, Cormac McCarthy’s Child of God, and Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment. Each of these books contains shocking violence, but their mentally unsound lead characters are not just watered-down Norman Bates types; they’re fleshed-out and complex – even poetic – and that makes all the difference. The arch of each book is the main character’s descent into madness, which spirals them into their irrational, criminal behavior, rather than taking the cheap route of showing a straight-jacket bound lunatic busting free from an asylum that’s more like a haunted house attraction than a hospital.
To those of you who may have seen and read only a handful of the above, I strongly recommend you pursue them. Not only are they incredible works, they will open your eyes to the reality of mental illness despite the fact that they are works of fiction. As writers, authenticity is our greatest tool when it comes to producing quality characters. If you’re going to write about mental illness, learn about it. Don’t just go off of what you’ve seen in a thousand serial killer movies. It is important that we all come together and try to better understand these disorders, so we can do away with the tired stereotypes that do so much damage to people who have already suffered enough. People with mental disorders aren’t to be feared or mocked. Would you fear or mock someone with a heart defect? They’re also not to be pitied. Like the handicapped, we don’t want to be treated differently, just fairly.
We’re just people, like you.
And at any point in time, you could be one of us.
The Ruin Season, the latter of which deals heavily with bipolar disorder. His short fiction has appeared in countless magazines and anthologies. He works as a professional dog trainer and lives in North Carolina with his wife.