Reducing the ignorance: stories in imperfect language


This Monday we have a piece from Ekaterina Prosandeeva, MA, PhD Candidate at the University of Eastern Finland in the Philosophical faculty, School of Humanities. She writes, “My current doctoral work is concerned with the binary of norm and deviance and the conveyance of the subjective experience of mental illness in the contemporary English literature. The doctoral research is supported by the North Karelia Regional Fund of the Finnish Cultural Foundation.” You can contact her via email at, or on Facebook or LinkedIn.

There is a tendency among the general public to consider narratives of mental illness a highly specialized sort of reading. Such an attitude solidifies the us/them binary: one denies what seems irrelevant to him or her claiming (or rather assuring oneself) that it is none of his or her concern. This is a vicious circle: on the one hand, the entire issue of ignorance arises precisely from a lack of desire to be concerned and, on the other hand, the refusal to be concerned is a direct consequence of being ignorant. I chose to study narratives of mental illness in part in order to break this circle and to demonstrate that a “non-involvement” attitude is limiting in many ways.

The first thing I found out in the course of my research is that our opinions and judgments are often formed by superficial representations of different disorders. It is remarkable that such representations operate both ways: some disorders are demonized to the extent that people suffering from them are pictured as extremely hostile others, while the names of other disorders enter our everyday small talk and thus depart from their actual clinical picture.

“On the Run”, Henry Cockburn’s artwork.

Schizophrenia is one of those demonized ones, the realm of fear and the unknown. When Henry Cockburn, the co-author of the Henry’s Demons memoir1, was deinstitutionalized he managed to resume his art studies. Henry told some of his fellow students that he had schizophrenia but the response he received was: “Oh, do you have a split personality?”2 It is likely that the young people confused schizophrenia with a multiple or dissociative identity disorder, as it is pictured by Daniel Keyes3, or else, shaped by a stereotype and a familiar word combination they had happened to overhear somewhere. Thus, stereotypes produce distorted representations of some conditions and further contaminate the labels produced by the always-already unreliable language that has its own limits.

The unreliability of language is the second important thing to take into account. We can look up schizophrenia in an etymology dictionary to find a literal translation from Greek— “a splitting of mind”. Thus it is fairly easy to confuse it with multiple identity disorder if one fails to get to the “splitting of psychic functioning” that Bleuler implied while coining the word schizophrenia.4 Or else, if one fails to look through, say, Cockburns’ Henry Demons or Daniel Keyes’ The Minds of Billy Milligan. Upon reading the mentioned stories, it becomes fairly hard to confuse Henry Cockburn and Billy Milligan.

24 identities of Billy Milligan.
24 identities of Billy Milligan.

While schizophrenia is a demonized diagnosis, one of those used in our idle talk on an everyday basis is depression. In his book (an extract also published in Unholy Ghost collection) William Styron compares “depression” to a slug, saying that it pretends to be non-malevolent and prevents a general awareness of its own horrible intensity.5 The etymology of depression is as ambiguous as that of schizophrenia with its seme of being “pressed down” or “weighed down”. The structure of the word and the inaccurate use of it scarcely give a full picture of clinical depression. Neither does the impersonal dryness of hospital records.

What can help then to reduce the ambiguity and lift the veil at least a little bit on mental illness? I believe that a story is what makes understanding possible and reduces the ignorance about human conditions. Jacques Derrida suggested an idea that the words are found “under erasure: the word is not accurate, he says, and we cross it out, yet it remains visible because we cannot do without it.6 Although “depression” is inaccurate and our stories are mediated by language, such stories convey the experience proving that it is not isolated and incomprehensible. It would be great luck to use a perfect language that could immediately and naturally convey our thoughts and experiences but we live in no fairy tale and we need to come to terms with the imperfect language we have and take incoherent stories into account. As Joshua Wolf Schenk says in his essay in Unholy Ghost, he hoped for a “direct communication” but when he spoke, “it was with stumbles and stammers”.7 A coherent speech can hardly represent a translation of a fragmented experience—even an incoherent one often fails. Furthermore, the majority of stories people may tell are far from being those of full recovery, though the latter are more often published. An assumption that only coherent narratives of full recovery count can be discouraging for a writer.

Therefore, the third and the fourth issues I would like to emphasize are the myths: that of coherence and that of a full recovery. In other words, illness stories are not and should not be the stories with happy ending. The last line of Henry’s Demons reads: “I sit under the tree which speaks to me and gives me hope”. I know a reviewer8 who claims that this line reminds him of a horror movie. Inappropriate as it is, this claim demands a “completed” story and underestimates the open-ended stories, no less worthy than the former.


1. Cockburn, Henry and Patrick Cockburn. Henry’s Demons: A Father and Son’s Journey Out of Madness. New York: Scribner, 2011.
2. Cockburn, Henry. “If I say I’m schizophrenic people reply, ‘So you’ve got a split personality’”. Independent November 27, 2012.
3. Keyes, Daniel. The Minds of Billy Milligan. New York: Random House, 1981.
4. Bleuler, Eugen. Dementia Praecox: Or the Group of Schizophrenias. New York: International Universities Press, 1911.
5. Styron, William. Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness. New York: Vintage, 1990.
6. Derrida, Jacques. Of Grammatology. Trans. Gayatri Spivak. The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997.
7. Schenk, Joshua Wolf. ‘A Melancholy of Mine’. Unholy Ghost: Writers on Depression. Nell Casey, ed. New York: Perennial, 2002. 242-255.
8. Garner, Dwight. Phantoms of the Mind, No Longer Schocking but No Less Haunting. The New York Times, Feb. 1, 2011.

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