Disclosure: This review is based upon a copy provided by the publisher. No other consideration was offered.
This book has been getting a ton of buzz, and praise, across the YA sphere and beyond for its depiction of mental illness, and the excitement surrounding the book really reflects the cultural problems that the book itself exemplifies. This isn’t a book about mental illness: This is a book about how mental illness is an annoying problem for the family members of the mentally ill person. We get enough narratives like this, and we don’t need any more. A World Without You doesn’t add anything to the body of literature on mental illness — rather, it’s another stone on the pile that is slowly crushing mentally ill people to death, because these are the kinds of representations we get in pop culture, and it’s unspeakably frustrating.
A World Without You feels acutely to me like someone trying to work out her resentment about having a mentally ill family member, and it’s frankly painful for me to read. It’s painful because I’m sure there are people who feel this way about me, and it’s painful because I’m thinking about all of the young readers who are internalising this book and what it has to say about them. The messaging in this book is actively damaging, and it’s incredibly frustrating to see everyone slathering it with praise.
The premise of A World Without You revolves around Bo, a boy with the ability to travel through time who’s studying in a school for gifted people to learn how to control his powers. He’s surrounded with a small class of people who have other powers, like being able to become invisible, or being able to spontaneously generate fire. As readers, though, we understand that this is all a delusion — Bo has some vague and unspecified mental illness, and he’s in an institution receiving intensive inpatient therapy.
At the same time that we’re seeing Bo’s narrative unfold, we also interact with his sister back at home. She’s viciously bitter about the cost of Bo’s institutionalisation, all the energy she thinks he’s sucking from the family, and her past with her brother. Over the course of the book, things build to a head as Bo struggles to cope with the loss of his girlfriend, Sofia, and a cataclysmic series of events changes their world forever.
I can’t speak to Revis’ mental health status, because she hasn’t disclosed (to my knowledge), but I do know that the book is supposedly loosely based on her real world brother. And that makes me all kinds of troubled. Even if she does have a mental health condition and thus some connection and familiarity with the immediate experience of mental illness, the book carries a strong overtone of a nondisabled person Telling Us How It Is. It’s all the more disturbing that she’s using his brother’s life to tell this story, projecting herself onto his experiences. I have no way of knowing if he consented to having his story fictionalised and sold to the world this way, but if he didn’t, or wasn’t offered an opportunity to do so, that’s extremely upsetting.
As someone who’s been the unwilling subject of other people’s creative work, it’s a really horrible and unpleasant feeling. It makes you feel slimy, and used, especially when it’s delving into some of the most personal, traumatic, and intense experiences of your life. It’s not other people’s place to tell these stories for me. It’s my choice to decide where and when to tell these stories, and in what context. When I read autobiographies or ‘semi-autobiographies’ like this, I experience this oppressive sense of fear and proximal terror, not knowing whether the object of the story (and I use object deliberately here) had any kind of agency in the storytelling.
There’s a common meme in popular culture and society where people say that they are ‘living with mental illness’ or ‘living with disability’ when what they really mean is ‘I live with a mentally ill person’ or ‘I live with a disabled person.’ This practice is incredibly dehumanising — literally — putting the nondisabled person at the centre of the narrative and completely erasing the person who actually matters, the person who should really be at the foreground, the person who actually has mental illness or a given impairment. Books like this one reinforce that meme. Once again, the person ‘living with’ is telling the story, instead of the person who is actually mentally ill.
There’s a lot of talk about how disability is ‘hard on the families’ and they need space to tell their stories too, and I’m sorry, but I don’t hold with it. They’ve been telling the stories, for an extremely long time. Families have been at the center of discussions about disability since time immemorial, and we’re been hearing for centuries about how difficult it is to have disabled family members, and how it requires such sacrifices. I’m over it. I want books about disability told by disabled people, relaying their own experience. I want family members to sit down and shut up for a while, to let us tell our own stories.
A World Without You just contributes more harmful reinforcement of cultural memes. It’s especially frustrating in light of the fact that there are good YA books about mental illness that people could be reading instead. Worse yet, mental illness often onsets in people’s teens, and teens more than anyone need books about their experience that send positive and affirming messages, rather than hateful ones.
Image: Brains!!!, Matthias Weinberger, Flickr