The actress Glenn Close has apologised this week for the way she portrayed mental illness in the thriller, Fatal Attraction. Close heads BringChange2Mind, an advocacy group designed to erase the stigma and discrimination surrounding mental illness.This came about because her sister has bipolar disorder and a nephew of hers has also dealt with mental illness.
I have every reason to support attempts to increase understanding of mental health issues. I have friends and relatives with anxiety and depression; I know others who have watched their children grow up into adults with schizophrenia; in my twenties a dear friend of mine died as a result of undiagnosed bipolar disorder, back when effective treatments were less available than they are today. I understand Glenn Close’s discomfort, thinking of the famous ‘bunny-boiling’ role she played, when members of her family have suffered from mental health problems, but her statement made me wonder – should we apologise for fiction? Should we police it so that it only portrays the attitudes we approve of in real life? Should dramas about mental health show people recognising their problems, seeking help, receiving counselling, medication and sensible understanding, and then returning to full health? Would such a story be a drama at all?
I was already writing my story, Unspeakable Things, in which a pregnant woman is told that there is serious inherited mental illness in her family, when real life overtook me with a few surprises of its own. At the age of 13, my happy, well-balanced younger son began to suffer from strange, obsessive worries. Attempts to reassure him would seem to work for a time, and then the same worries would be back; worse than before. He was plagued by unwanted thoughts that tormented and terrified him. People tried to reassure me that odd anxieties were common among teenagers, but in the small hours, sleepless, I began to be afraid that we were dealing with a mental illness. I cannot tell you how much this thought frightened me. As my son’s condition deteriorated and he told me that he had considered suicide, I spoke to a counsellor friend. My heart thudded as I told her, ‘I just want you to tell me that this is not mental illness.’ ‘I can’t tell you that,’ she said. This was my watershed moment, in which I had to put fear and denial aside and deal with what was in front of me.
We went to the doctor’s and were referred to CAMHS (the Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service), where we eventually saw a psychiatrist, who diagnosed Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. We were told that the condition is most likely to appear in families where there is a history of anxiety or low mood. Bizarrely, the inherited mental illness that I had totally invented for my story had entered our real lives.
My son was eventually treated with Cognitive Behaviour Therapy, and began to try different strategies to control his OCD. Over time, with enormous effort on his part, he made progress, and as he matured, he began to cope better and the bad times became fewer and further between. At 17 he is again happy and well-balanced, and has a strength and a level of empathy and understanding that he has gained from his experience of overcoming and learning to live with his OCD. I could not be prouder of him.
Did my son’s experience make me more sensitive to how mental illness is portrayed and discussed? Yes. I bristle when people tell me they are ‘a little bit OCD’ because they like their cutlery drawer in order. People with OCD suffer torment from unwanted thoughts and crippling anxieties; it is not about being a little bit fussy or liking things tidy. But do I think that fiction should shrink from representing our instinctive fear of mental illness in order to avoid offending political correctness? No, absolutely not.
The real life story doesn’t end there. My husband, usually a lively, cheerful and effective deputy head of a primary school, is currently going through a bout of severe anxiety and depression brought on by stress at work. He is unable to work and has begun a course of medication. He feels dreadful in the mornings and when I leave him to go to work, his eyes have a haunted, traumatised look. He is thin, weak and exhausted, and this has all happened in the last couple of weeks. A few months ago he was thriving, organising fundraising events on top of his usual workload and running a half marathon for good measure. As we talked over coffee this morning, he said that until very recently, he had been trying to keep an eye on his stress levels and congratulating himself on coping well; he described it as ‘frightening’ how quickly and completely the illness had overtaken him.
Mental illness is frightening. It was a deep, primitive fear that gripped me when my son became ill, and again as my husband lost control of his rational self. The fear was there long before either of these events, and I make no apology for representing it in my writing. In fiction, all that we love, all that we dream of, laugh at, hope for, flee from, fear and dread flows into language and creates stories with a dynamic all their own. Any attempt to police this creative process with inhibiting considerations will destroy it. You will know this if you have ever tried to write while wondering what your colleagues, parents or vicar might think of your story.
Of course we all self-edit and keep a watch on the attitudes that emerge as we write. I debated at length over whether or not I should include the word ‘madness’ in this post, and I have changed it several times to and fro, from the more politically correct ‘mental illness.’ In my story, Sarah is editing a book called ‘Madness and Society’, and while reading about ‘moral panic in the media’ in reaction to ‘high-profile cases of mentally ill people murdering strangers’, she thinks how she and Jim have plans to strengthen the fence between their home and Woodlands, a mental health clinic. ‘Were they caught up in the overblown anxiety, seeing the clinic as a place packed with people who posed a danger to them? Before she could put their reactions to the test, a new thought pounced and caught her: Were there dangerous people at Woodlands?’
However, Unspeakable Things is a thriller. When you set out to write a story like this, you think to yourself, what frightens me most? And for me, the primitive fear of madness had to come high on the list. I don’t mean that people with mental health problems frighten me; that I think they are going to hurt me. That would be ridiculous and unfair. It is the idea of our minds, the framework within which our very being is defined, being disrupted that terrifies me. When I was a teenager, a girl I barely knew at school came up to me and said, ‘I’m sorry for all the trouble I’ve caused.’ Her statement meant nothing to me and I felt awash with anxiety as I muttered, ‘That’s OK! You haven’t..?’ and tried to make sense of it. Eventually a teacher told me that she was going through a breakdown, and I was able to understand – but the strange fear of that moment remained with me. Four years ago, I was afraid for my son; a week ago I was afraid for my husband. I was afraid of the way I reacted when I first realised that Jon was ill: lashing out with a horrible mix of stubborn denial, fury, self-pity and despair, all flowing from a deep-seated fear. Now rationality, compassion and coping mechanisms have kicked in, and I know Jon will make a full recovery. But let’s not pretend that these things do not frighten us.
This week, Stephen Fry, who is president of the mental health charity, Mind, has also spoken out, revealing that, struggling with bipolar disorder, he made a suicide attempt last year. He said this: "There are times when I'm doing QI and I'm going, 'Ha ha, yeah, yeah,' and inside I'm going 'I want to fucking die. I … want … to … fucking … die.'"
http://www.guardian.co.uk/culture/2013/jun/05/stephen-fry-attempted-suicide-bipolar It frightens me that a man who is so successful, so intelligent and so engaging, and who appears to be coping so well, could be having those thoughts even while entertaining the nation.
Fiction must flow from how we actually feel, not how we think we ought to feel. I’m not sure we should apologise if a thriller emerges from something that frightens us, even if our rational minds tell us that what is required is understanding and tolerance, rather than fear. I write about what moves me, because the writing I enjoy is that which creates a powerful reaction in me, whether it is laughter, sympathy, suspense or fear. In life, as a family we are dealing with one of the most common types of mental illness: anxiety. I love my son and my husband, and all my dear friends who suffer from mental illness either in themselves or in loved ones; I wish them all the help, understanding and peace they could wish for. At the same time, I am writing a novel bristling with anxiety and rooted in the fear of madness, and I do not apologise for that.