Thursday, June 16, 2016

Broken Mirrors: Mental Illness in Fiction and Film

I read Kristopher Triana's The Ruin Season in a single sitting, but in my memory it feels like I sat with it for quite a while. It covers a lot of ground familiar to crime fiction readers; small town sexual tensions, drugs, pornography, violent history threatening to repeat and mental illness, but finds a way to make each trope feel organic, unexpected and earned through a patient, deliberate attention to character set against an ever-encroaching countdown to armageddon.

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.

Affliction is an excellent example of this. It perfectly captures the intensity of bipolar mood swings, the wreckage left by delusions, and the horrible aftermath of child abuse. The film is a slow burn powerhouse, much like the onslaught of a mixed-manic state, a bipolar flare-up that twists reality, causing the sufferer to have paranoid rage, delusions of grandeur and yet also crippling depression. The character of Wade suffers a mixed-manic state through the course of the film, and is immaculately played by Nick Nolte. This is by far the best look at a bipolar breakdown that has ever been put to film. The source material is a novel by the same name by Russell Banks, which is equally brilliant and tender.

And there are other films that do an excellent job with individual disorders.

Falling Down is the story of a man with intermittent explosive disorder, a condition that causes the sufferer to lash out at others with more aggression than the situation may warrant. Throughout the film, a man known to us as D-Fens (Michael Douglas) rampages his way through L.A., trying to get home to his estranged family for his little girl’s birthday. The movie is as explosive as the disorder it portrays, D-Fens shooting and stabbing some of the street criminals and skinheads he comes in contact with. What sets him apart from a typical movie maniac is the fact that his victims have it coming.

Clean, Shaven is a stellar depiction of the schizophrenic mind, and Peter Greene gives a powerful performance as a man recently released from a psychiatric hospital, even though he clearly isn’t well. The movie follows him as he tries to find some way to carry on in society, and impressively the film even manages to tap upon the stigma of mental illness, as he is pursued for horrible crimes based solely on the fact that he is schizophrenic. It is one of the most unsettling films on this or any list.

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.

Revolution #9 tells the story of a schizoaffective man as his life becomes unraveled by his own mental tailspin. He becomes paranoid and delusional, and the nonsensical conspiracy he convinces himself of causes him to attack an innocent director before his fiancé is able to get a court order to put him into an institution against his will. One of the greatest things about this movie is showing how mental illness affects the lives of the people who love the person with the disorder. Revolution #9 so mirrored my own experiences that I found it very hard to watch. The film is so affective and accurate that it feels like a documentary or biopic.

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.

There are other films that delve into these and other disorders with clarity and apt darkness, such as The Machinist and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, the champion of them all. But just because a movie has a mentally ill character in it, that doesn’t mean that the whole movie has to revolve around mental illness. It can still manage a truthful depiction of said character. An example of this would be in Sin City, the Robert Rodriguez film based on the graphic novels by Frank Miller. Marv (magnificently played by Mickey Rourke) is a down-and-out thug who goes on a vengeful manhunt after a prostitute is murdered. We’re told that he has “a condition”, and there is an incredible moment in the film where he has a moment of self-doubt during his assassination spree, in which he begins to question his own sanity in relation to the conspiracy he has uncovered. His inner monologue is a masterful representation of the struggles of mental illness, in the least likely of movies.

“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.

Hubert Selby Jr. is probably the best writer you can find when it comes to mental illness in fiction. Whether it’s a mind distorted by repressed sexuality (Last Exit to Brooklyn) drug addiction (Requiem for a Dream), or lust and thrill seeking (The Demon), Selby’s work touches on the broken inner life with unmatched grace. His novel The Room pulls us into the life of a man who is living an anti-life, locked away in a room, suffering its sensory deprivation. The novel chronicles a complete and total mental breakdown with blistering prose and an empathetic voice, showing the reader that mental illness could happen to anyone under the right conditions.

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.

The less lazy horror novels that address mental illness usually do so with great creativity. Some keep the reader on edge, using horror’s leanings towards monsters and demons to make the reader guess whether the characters are actually experiencing something supernatural or if it is all in their minds. Great examples of this can be found in Paul Tremblay’s A Head Full of Ghosts and Nicole Cushing’s Mr. Suicide, as well as William Peter Blatty’s classic The Exorcist and its underrated sequel Legion.

There’s no better example of books better representing mental illness than American Psycho. The film is amusing, but holds none of the disturbing realism of Bret Easton Ellis’s book. The novel is told from Patrick Bateman’s point of view, and he talks about his life and desires diary-style, documenting his downward spiral, speaking of his murderous atrocities with the same passion which he talks of designer CD racks and imported suits. There are whole chapters dedicated to nothing more than his opinions on the music of Genesis and the texture of business cards. While tedious to read (and Ellis admits this), these portions of the book give the reader and intimate look into a sick and obsessive mind, which the movie lacks despite its efforts.

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.

Kristopher Triana is the author of the short story collection Growing Dark and the novel 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.

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