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The Collected Schizophrenias by Esmé Weijun Wang

The Collected Schizophrenias: Essays - Esmé Weijun Wang

Although this book seems well-loved overall, it wasn’t my favorite. It’s a collection of personal essays (which, in this case, is quite different from a memoir) by an Asian-American woman with schizoaffective disorder, largely about different aspects of the way her illness has affected her life. On their own, I think these essays are good: well-written, often weaving together multiple strands that at first seem unrelated, and reflective when it comes to the author’s experience of her serious mental illness.

But together, the collection feels like less than the sum of its parts. They don’t quite come together into a whole, and I didn’t come away feeling like I had a good understanding of the author’s lived experience overall, in the way that one hopefully does after reading a memoir. Some essays have a very narrow focus – like how viewing a particular movie in the theater caused her to lose touch with reality a bit – but the larger problem is that they often come across as detached and academic. In writing about her trauma, for instance, the author will digress to give us an entire paragraph on which books lay out the proper techniques for EMDR therapy, where one can purchase them, and for how much.

In the final paragraphs of an essay about being hospitalized, Wang writes, “I maintain, years later, that not one of my three involuntary hospitalizations helped me. I believe that being held in a psychiatric ward against my will remains among the most scarring of my traumas.” This was startling to read, not because of the sentiment – unfortunately, this experience of hospitalization is typical of the personal accounts I’ve read – but because the essay itself is rather mild and detached, doing nothing to lead the reader to the conclusion that the author ultimately draws. By this point, readers ought to have felt the trauma of these experiences themselves, rather than being surprised by her feelings at the end.

In the end, not a book I’d discourage you from reading if you’re really interested, but also not the best I’ve read on the subject. If you want to read a memoir about living with schizophrenia, try The Center Cannot Hold first.