Authors are often reluctant to explore the experience of mental illness from the position of the mentally ill person. A lot of books about mental illness are, well, about it. They centre around the people who are not mentally ill and how they interact with the mentally ill character, how they feel about the character, how the mental illness ruins their lives. One exception to that trend is in young adult fiction, where a number of authors explore themes surrounding mental illness, with greater and lesser degrees of success, and are also not afraid to depict mentally ill characters.
I noticed this in Will Grayson, Will Grayson, where one of the protagonists has depression, and it came up again in Suicide Notes, where mental illness is a central theme, as you may imagine from the title. This could be a book that revolves entirely around mental illness, where it is the only facet of the character’s identity and the only part of the story you are supposed to care about, but it is not. And that is a surprisingly hard thing for authors to do well, apparently. I’d note that talking about some of the themes in this book also requires discussing critical plot points, and if you are the kind of person who likes to let a story unfold, and you haven’t read this book and are planning to, you may want to stop now and bookmark this for future reading.
The book opens with Jeff’s discovery that he’s on the psychiatric ward of a hospital after a suicide attempt. What happens after that is a slow exploration of mental illness, sexual identity, and institutionalisation. In Jeff’s case, there’s an end in sight, and he is not condemned to the institution for an indefinite period of time, but Ford captures some of the experiences that are common to institutions, even as he also sometimes stretches the boundaries of belief to advance the story, for which I can forgive him to some extent.
At the beginning of the book, Jeff assures us that he is not crazy, like those other actual crazies on the ward, the scary ones, the ones in his group therapy sessions who clearly, you know, belong there. This is an experience some mentally ill people seem to share, the idea that there are good and bad crazies and you can separate yourself from them. As time progresses, he starts to question the boundary between ‘crazy’ and ‘normal’ and asks himself who belongs on the ward and who doesn’t, even as he tries to navigate his own depression. He goes from rigidly refusing help to wanting to talk with his therapist on his own about the things he’s thinking about.
This surface narrative could be one that affirms the idea that crazy people belong on psych wards, and people forced to seek mental health care end up getting a lot out of it and thanking the people who intervened for it in the end. That is definitely one way to read the book and some people do read it that way. It could be considered a repetition of narratives in the nondisabled community about mental illness, depression, what life in institutions is like. This is not a book where you see psychiatric abuse, where nurses and orderlies are abusive to the patients, where the institution is an unsafe, dangerous place not because of the people in it but because of the people in charge of it.
But it is also about Jeff’s own journey, and it is a narrative that will undoubtedly ring true to some readers. It may affirm commonly-held ideas about mental health and institutions without really challenging them in any meaningful way, but I’m reluctant to condemn the book on that basis. Because I think that for some young adult readers who may be struggling with depression and other mental illnesses, it might be pretty damn nice to read a book where the crazy person is not the villain, is not bad and wrong and evil, but is just a human being, dealing with some tough stuff going on in his life. And this is not an entirely happy, easy to read book. The stories of Jeff’s fellow patients are very different from his own, we as readers are reminded that threats to safety can come from unexpected places when you are in the hospital.
This is also a book about homosexuality and exploring sexual orientations. Jeff fumbles at his nascent sexuality and experiences sexual assault and conflicted feelings around it. One area where I think Ford fell short was in explicitly identifying those scenes as sexual assault, to make it clear to readers that you can experience rape and still have very complicated feelings around it. It can be hard to do this in a first person narrative without feeling clunky, though. In other areas, I think he did an excellent job of depicting a gay character; what it is like to grow up in a world where everyone assumes they know who you will be attracted to, and how it feels when you realise that actually, your feelings about the people around you differ from expectations and what is ‘normal.’ And how sometimes, that can throw you into a very negative spiral that can end in a very bad place.
The ending is a bit too pat and happy; fancy that, Jeff’s parents are totally accepting of his gayness after some token resistance and he’s friends with all the people on the ward and everything is just great. But so many endings for queer youth are not happy, these days, that I do not think this is necessarily a bad thing. It is a reminder that happy endings are possible, that supportive family and friends do matter. And it is also a reminder that it is ok to be afraid and uncertain about your identity.