February 15, 2011

It's Kind of a Funny Story... Until It's Not.

"You never would have guessed what I had been through; where I had been. I didn't look “crazy”-I never had. I looked like any other teenage girl. I went to classes with everyone else. I talked to other kids. I attended school events. I would have the seen your dance team, had I gone to Waunakee High School. And you would never have known. In fact, the next time you perform, I want you to look at the kids in the audience. About 1 in 10 children under the age of eighteen have a mental illness; 1 in 5 have a serious mental illness (SMI) like the ones you mock. ONE IN FIVE.

How many kids are watching you perform? How many are in your school? How about in your district? Your town?"
~ Erika, age 14

I can guarantee you that we don't do politics here in the Wonderland Neverland tree-ship. (Look, it's a pirate-themed treehouse. Just...go with it.) We may watch the news, but it stays out of the blogging, unless it has something to do with young adults and children's literature. This isn't entirely about literature, but it does touch on children, young adults, and a big elephant in the room of our society.

We really admire and appreciate ourselves some Ned Vizzini, and we're really glad that his book we enjoyed has recently gone on to movie fame. When I read his book in 2006, I was uncomfortable with how funny I found it -- because Mental Illness Is Not Funny... but I reread it, and found myself relieved. It is real. It has poignancy and bright/dark moments which are so very normal to how life goes, to the way I feel. It's Kind of a Funny Story is most important to me because it highlights the decision to live, and get help when faced with what a friend and I call Those Intrusive Thoughts that make hanging one's toes off the edge of the Brooklyn Bridge at 3 a.m. seem like a really good idea.

Most people have a lot more experience with those kinds of thoughts than one might think.

Mental health issues are the biggest elephant in the room, EVER. They are hugely awkward in our society. When the "American dream" is to, by our own effort, rule our particular little worlds, a loss of control through mental challenges has a massive stigma to the American -- heck, to the WORLD public. No one wants to be associated with the stereotypical "crazy person" who has to miss days of work and school, staying home and struggling. No one wants to be "that guy," the one who has to take medication, who sometimes emotes too much - cries or laughs too easily, who has blackout panic attacks in a crowded hallway, or who falls apart at the drop of a grade.

It is something we all fear. Therefore, it's really easy... to make fun of it.

Which is what happened, inadvertently, a few weeks ago at a Wisconsin high school. The pep rally routine featured cheerleaders with black makeup smeared on their faces, snarled hair, scary expressions, and the words "Psych Ward" on their straitjacket-looking uniforms as they danced through a "fun and catchy" song to get school spirit up and going. "We Get Crazy" is the title of their routine.

All right. The finger-pointing and shouty bits of the dialogue can go on without us. We can agree that the routine was insensitive and surreal without all of the screeching, and we can also probably agree that it was a misjudgment by the head coach, who isn't an Evil Person and didn't intend to humiliate or shame, just create a dance to a "catchy and amusing" hip-hop song.

Conversely, some of us might even agree with the NBC sportswriter who claimed that it's a political thing and wrong to teach kids to back down under pressure, and that the cheerleaders should go on if they feel okay about things, and everyone is oversensitive these days, and should shut up. Yeah, someone can probably agree to parts of all of that.

I was able to pass the news story without public comment until I ran across a letter of response. Erika, who shares her story without adding a last name (for obvious reasons), writes with frustration and passion an open letter to the head coach of Waunakee Wisconsin High School.

I blink when I think about the statistics that Erika quotes. One in ten young adults below eighteen have a mental illness, one in five have a serious one. One in five is a REALLY big number. Does YA fiction reflect this? Or is this invisible to YA authors, too?

Other than Ned Vizzini's book, what was the last book I read wherein someone had a serious mental challenge? Okay, there are some classics: the Sonya Sones book, Stop Pretending; Patricia McCormick's Cut. There was an old book I remember reading called Lisa, Bright & Dark about a girl with severe mood swings. Deb Caletti's Wild Roses comes to mind, as does When She Was Good, by Norma Fox Mazer (boy, that's an old one.) More recently, Dia Calhoun wrote The Phoenix Dance, a fantasy retelling of the Twelve Dancing Princesses -- cleverly paralleling their dance mania with bipolar disorder. The intensely arresting Tallulah Falls by Christine Fletcher is about a drop-everything kind of friendship, and a very impulsive friend.

There are more novels, there must be -- can you think of them? Have you read anything that struck you as extraordinary? I'm thinking of making a list to post -- fiction which depicts people with wonky brain chemistry leading lives with meaning and humor and balance, in spite of school and work and life's crap. Let me know if you can think of any real standouts which resonated with you.

My point, if I have one, is to let Erika know that I, as a writer, hear her, that this is bouncing around the echo chamber in my head, and that I'm still listening. And, that I know how easy it is to make fun of what we fear, but this isn't funny, and smart people aren't laughing.

That's all.

(Mostly)cross-posted @ fiction, instead of lies


Susan T. said...

Good grief. I had not hear anything about this, but that'a awful.

Very powerful letter that Erika wrote.

Sarah Stevenson said...

Actually, the one I just wrote about, Mad Love, has a mother with bipolar disorder and a narrator who fears she might be developing it. Um...Anne Spollen's The Shape of Water, I think, might fit here. Holly Schindler's A Blue So Dark is another book with a mentally-ill mother (haven't read it yet; on the TBR pile).

The graphic novel How I Made it to Eighteen by Tracy White is about a teenager with a mental illness. But you're right--compared to the statistics, there's not much out there in the literary scene.

tanita✿davis said...

I think what I also was after was books wherein a person had a joyful, meaningful life even with mental health issues. There are quite a few books wherein the Problem Novel structure is clearly celebrate - it's an After School Special with explanations -- and I guess that has its place, but most people aren't reading just for definition, but for ...hope? A sense of "okay, someone else knows what this is like, and survives" or something like that, I think...

Joe Lunievicz said...

In Andrew Smith's The Marbury Lens, the main character, Jack, suffers from PTSD. This is one of the most powerful I stories I read last year - YA or adult.

Sarah Stevenson said...

I keep hearing good things about The Marbury Lens, so as of now I have officially put it on my hold list at the library. Thanks for the reminder!

Doret said...

That's not funny. One of those cheerleaders knowns someone that is mentally ill, be it themselves or a relative but they have to keep on pretending to fit in.

In Saving Francesca by Marchetta, the mother suffers from depression. The author handles the topic very very well.

tanita✿davis said...

More books and a new one to add to the list - thanks, you guys. I'm appreciating all the comments.

Jennifer R. Hubbard said...

I just wrote such a book (I think; I'm sure readers will tell me whether I've succeeded or not). It should be out in slightly less than a year. The current title is TRY NOT TO BREATHE.

BLEEDING VIOLET (Dia Reeves) might fit what you're talking about. The main character has mental-health issues, but her major concern in life is not that, but in helping her love interest fight the malevolent paranormal creatures who threaten their town. And one of the Wills in WILL GRAYSON, WILL GRAYSON was definitely struggling with depression, but had a sense of humor and found a source of hope.

Jennifer Buehler said...

I also enjoyed Julie Schumacher's BLACK BOX. Like SAVING FRANCESCA and STOP PRETENDING, the protagonist is dealing with the mental illness of a loved one. Julie Halpern's GET WELL SOON could be a companion book to IT'S KIND OF A FUNNY STORY.

Sarah Stevenson said...

More great suggestions. Thanks so much, guys. My booklist just keeps growing! (And I just realized that sounded like a sarcastic thank you...but I really mean it!)

tanita✿davis said...

Hi Jennifer!
Between your newest book and the two others you mentioned that I hadn't read, I am happily contemplating new stuff. Any idea on a release date for TRY NOT TO BREATHE yet?

Jennifer R. Hubbard said...

Hi Tanita! Thanks for asking--the current release date is, tentatively, January 2012. But that's not set in stone yet.