“Insanity – a perfectly rational adjustment to an insane world.” (R. D. Laing)

Some friends of mine recently got married in a beautiful venue, which used to be a mental health hospital. A lovely time was had by all. People were struck at how nice it was, and it got me wondering: why? Were they expecting the institution to be grim in itself, or was it the thought that somehow all that pain remains and would be felt? It seemed to be a bit of both. Clearly the idea of a place where mental health is treated is a powerful one. It’s no surprise then, that it’s proved a tempting choice for writers, so it’s led me to this week’s theme of novels set in mental health units. Rest assured Reader: although powerful, neither of my choices are depressing. At this time of year it can feel like everyone’s mental health is under siege and we just don’t need it. In fact, here’s a little pick-me-up for us all:

On with books! Firstly, All Dogs Are Blue by Rodrigo de Souza Leao (2008, trans.Zoe Perry and Stefan Tobler 2013). This novella is only 107 pages long but it is one of the most affecting and powerful pieces I have ever read. Rodrigo de Souza Leao died in a psychiatric clinic in Rio de Janeiro in 2009, shortly after this was published. All Dogs Are Blue takes the reader into life inside such an institution, and does so with an unblinking gaze, humour, warmth and blistering truth.

The narrator is 36-year-old overweight man who has swallowed ‘a chip’ which alters his behaviour. This has led to his incarceration. There isn’t a plot, it wouldn’t make sense if there was. Instead, the narrator takes us through his daily experiences and reminiscences about his past.

“The Christian says hallelujah. She takes my hand. I take out my dick and can’t play snooker. I go back to my nine-by-twelve cubicle, where they put me to smile bayoneting my veins. Grab the flesh, stretch the flesh, shove another injection in.”

The narrator never tries to convince us of his sanity. Rather, we are given his world view, one which is sometimes shocking in its clarity amongst flights from reality:

“If it could bark and eat, what would a blue dog eat? Blue food? And if it got ill. Would it take blue medicine? A lot of medicines are blue, including Haldol. I take Haldol to be under no illusions that I’ll die mad one day, somewhere dirty, without any food.”

Despite detailing an individual in dire circumstances, All Dogs Are Blue is not a depressing book. This is because the narrator is resilient and self-aware, even as he experiences psychotic delusions. There is humour found in his hallucinatory companions, nineteenth century French writers:

“Rimbaud wasn’t used to modern stuff, He was a guy from another time. He had to learn everything. He’d never written another poem. But he was a good companion for wasting away the hours and for poker.”

Whereas Baudelaire can be a bit more moody.

De Souza Leao also writes with great beauty and poetry:

“Everything went green like the colour of my brother Bruno’s eyes and the colour of the sea. Rimbaud was happy and decided not to kill himself.

Everything went Van Gogh. The light of things changed.”

But the humour and the poetry do not detract from the pain. Rather, they capture it in the most effective way to draw you in to begin to understand an extreme experience that thankfully, most of us will not endure.

“I break everything because I’m made of shards and when the shards invite me to, I wreak havoc.”

Through an individual experience, the wider issue of how we treat the mentally ill is addressed. De Souza Leao doesn’t offer answers but he poses uncomfortable questions about institutionalised mental healthcare:

“Mostly, they only wanted you to keep your mouth shut all the time, like no-one deserved to hear you say anything noble or important.”

All Dogs Are Blue is a stunning, heartbreaking novella. It is also yet another example of the brilliant work being done by not-for-profit publishers And Other Stories bringing translated fiction to a wider audience.

Secondly, a novel which examines the impact on family when a member has enduring mental ill health, The Gravity of Love by Sara Stridsberg (2014, trans. Deborah Bragan-Turner 2016). I was inspired to pick this up after reading Kate’s wonderful review. It’s also another stop on my Around the World in 80 Books Reading challenge, hosted by Hard Book Habit. Narrated by Jackie, it tells of her relationship with her alcoholic father Jim, who is an inpatient at Beckomberga Hospital in Stockholm. This was one of the largest mental health hospitals in Europe, but was closed in 1995 as the focus on care shifted to the community.

Image from here

Jackie finds herself drawn to her father and to the hospital, visiting repeatedly throughout her young life, despite the pain it causes.

“The light that has always been in his eyes is there no longer. The beautiful, terrifying desolate light that spilled over, illuminating the night around him and betraying a special kind of intensity and recklessness, something unstoppable, a raging fire, the sheerest drop.”

Stridsberg is excellent at capturing the complexities of loving someone who is hell-bent on self-destruction; the contradictory state whereby the person and what they seem to promise constantly shifts and hope of a better future never quite dies.

“All at once he sounds like the Jim I find so hard to remember, the way he was before the alcohol, before the devastation; if there really is such a thing as before.”

Jim is treated with compassion but the selfishness of his behaviour is not shied away from. He is the alcoholic but the disease that affects far more than just him:

“Every morning, a great despondency in his chest that stretches out like a wasteland. A blazing sun within him, his blood screaming for the warmed brandy running through his veins.”

Jackie makes highly questionable decisions herself and while this is clearly due to Jim’s impact on her life, Stridsberg is wise enough to present these decisions as they stand and not pull them apart in trite pseudo-psychological interpretations. We never entirely understand what draws Jackie relentlessly back to Beckomberga, because she doesn’t entirely understand it herself.

“Each time I walk through the hospital gates the rest of the world slides away, like the tide that recedes to lay bare another shoreline”

The Gravity of Love is about families, about how they make us who we are and how we make us who we are. Stridsberg explores a variety of familial relationships with great subtlety, but it is also a story of individuals’ relationships with institutions. Jackie’s relationship with Beckomberga is complex, and similarly, the inpatients’ relationship with the hospital is shown to be ambivalent, both supportive and restrictive:

“People say that former patients keep returning to Clock-House Park at Beckomberga, that they stand under the trees with their hands pressed on the sun-bleached walls, as if the institution’s heart were still beating within – a weak human pulse against my hand when I touch the faint blood-red colour of the façade.”

The fate of the last patient of the hospital, Olaf, is a sad one and this description of his experience just absolutely floored me:

 “He has always walked alone with the stamp of illness imprinted under his skin, visible to all apart from himself. Whenever he has approached a girl she has shied away. Every time he has offered his hand to someone it has been construed as hostile and he has been banished back to the hospital.”

Although very different from All Dogs Are Blue, Stridsberg is similarly challenging in her questions around how we treat mental illness: institutionally, societally, politically and individually. A beautifully written, poetic novel that never lets the style detract from the substance.

To end, I promised a return to 80s pop videos this week, and so I thought I’d pick an artist who has been very open about his struggles with bipolar disorder. The fact that I’ve been in love with him for 37 years is purely coincidental 😉

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22 thoughts on ““Insanity – a perfectly rational adjustment to an insane world.” (R. D. Laing)

  1. Snap. I’ll read All Dogs Are Blue (thanks to your review) and it will also be a stop on my Around the World challenge.

    Glad you liked Gravity of Love – it’s a book I’ve thought a lot about since, particularly recently when I was reading Yates’s Young Hearts Crying which has some scenes in a mental institution – there was a huge stigma attached to the institution (and I think some must have been based on fact because the detail was too precise and too horrific to be invented) and mental illness in general. I’m now reading a memoir, set in the 50s, where the woman’s mother is suffering what I think is schizophrenia – there’s little compassion and a lot of fear. Suspect that after this run of stories about mental health I’ll need something very frivolous to change gears.

    On a brighter note, my kids and I have now watched that Uptown Funk clip eleventy-hundred times. It’s BRILLIANT.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I really hope you enjoy All Dogs Are Blue. It’s a short read but his voice is so powerful.

      There’s still so much stigma around mental health but it must have been so much worse in the 1950s. Psychoses such as schizophrenia are particularly scary for people to witness and they tend to back away. The daughter of that woman must have felt so isolated, I’m sure you will need something light and frothy to help you recover!

      That clip is amazing isn’t it? I can’t believe what a brilliant job the editor’s done. It’s helping me get through these grey northern hemisphere days 🙂

      Like

  2. It was Kate’s review that made me put the Stridsberg on my list although I’ve yet to get around to buying it. You’ve spurred me on. And I have to tell you that just looking at that Adam Ant pic triggers an earworm that could last the rest of the month. Damn you!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I very thoughtful review, as ever, Madame Bibi, but, oh my, oh my, those old Hollywood musicals and the dancing, the dancing. Drunk on feel good endorphins. Joy bounds out from those clips, they made it look both phenomenally difficult (which it was) and yet, utterly effortless at the same moment. Walking? Sitting? Pah! Don’t you know the easiest thing in the world is tapping, dancing up walls, back flips – look how effortlessly and gracefully WE do it – go on, give it a try………. (Lady Fancifull hobbles painfully over to the phone, having failed to run up a wall, and phones the osteopath…………….)

    Liked by 1 person

    • Haha! I do hope you’re fully recovered now Lady F! They’re so inspirational aren’t they? But having jarred my neck on my nieces’ trampoline a few months back I have to accept that I’m not what I once was – and sadly I was never able to run up walls like Donald O’Connor *sigh*

      Thankfully, as you say, the clips alone are enough to be flooded with feel-good endorphins, joy of joys!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I’ve heard of Gravity of Love, and love things set on Scandi countries! However, I’m also no stranger to visiting a parent in a psychiatric hospital, and while I’ve found some books are quite comforting when there’s a feeling of shared experience, others are a bit too detailed. But I totally agree, some hospitals are quite lovely, but alas, the one I have to sometimes visit these has more a red-brick *goes away to Google name of the place in the Brittas Empire* Whitbury-Newton Leisure Centre vibe!

    Adam, always a winner. And I salute your 37 years of devotion 😉

    Liked by 1 person

    • It’s definitely a balance isn’t it, with novels similar to our experiences. I definitely find that CS Lewis thing of “we read to know we are not alone” such a gift, but other times it just adds to the stress of it all.

      I do think buildings have such a powerful impact on health. I worked in a Victorian monstrosity that was like a prison and there’s no way it remotely helped anyone’s mental health (thankfully the service itself was good, but really, the building needed to be razed to the ground) and I worked in a lovely modern unit that was designed in collaboration with service users and was just light years better. It sounds like your parent is treated at one somewhere between the two, I hope they’re doing well. (I’d totally forgotten the name Whitbury-Newton but the minute I saw it, it all came back to me!)

      Lovely Adam – he’s totally worthy of my 37 years of devotion *sigh*

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Hmm… I don’t think either of these is for me, despite your excellent saleswomanship. But I thoroughly enjoyed both videos, especially the dancing one – you have surpassed yourself! Of course, that sets the standard for the future… 😉

    Liked by 1 person

  6. These both sound wonderful and have promptly gone on to my wish list. I read a few novels about mental illness last year; it sort of feels like the new hot topic. Also: thank you for the Adam Ant clip, he always brings a smile to the face! I saw him perform at the Round House a few years ago. My BIL is a massive fan; he travelled all the way from New York, where he lives, to see him.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I really hope you enjoy them Kim. It does seem to be a hot topic doesn’t it? Hopefully it’s part of a more open conversation around mental health generally.

      How lovely to see Adam live! I was away when he did those Roundhouse gigs, I was very disappointed, but your BIL has shown I should have made more effort!

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Those both sound excellent. The way society reacts to mental health issues still needs to change. I remember when I worked for a corporate company for a while and one woman admitted she suffered from depression . . . People treated her very differently afterwards.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I totally agree Caroline. Luckily I’ve always worked in an area open to discussion of mental health issues but it’s definitely not the norm. It’s ridiculous, we can all experience mental ill health the same way we experience physical ill health. I think things are changing and improving, but it needs to happen faster and better.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Another two must-reads to add to my list! Ah, Adam Ant – he was a major crush.That video took me right back to being eleven years old, dancing round the lounge with my friend Sharmila, white stripes painted across our faces and little bits of ribbon plaited into the front of our hair – probably my finest fashion moment! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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