“Isn’t it her right to write her experience in the way she experienced it?”
My friend and I were having a heated discussion about the New York Times best-selling novel, All the Bright Places, and I’d said that I thought the portrayal of one of the main characters reinforced negative stereotypes about people with mental illnesses. I took issue with scenes depicting the character as violent, and the scenes that minimized mental health diagnoses as constricting labels. I worried that certain portions of the book denigrated the use of medication. But even though the book is fiction, those scenes were based on the actual experiences of author Jennifer Niven. In interviews, she’s spoken about how All the Bright Places was inspired by a boy she knew and loved who had bipolar disorder. She witnessed his highs and lows and his daily struggles up-close. Was I wrong to criticize her experience?
My friend’s question haunted me for several days. I also have personal knowledge of what it’s like to love someone who has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder: my father. It is a complex illness characterized by alternating periods of mania and depression. These periods can last for weeks, months, or even years. Having bipolar disorder isn’t a universal experience: no two people exhibit the exact same symptoms, and no one’s experience is more authentic. Some people, like my father, spend more time inhabiting the soaring highs of mania. He refused to take medication for most of my childhood because he loved the highs, the energy, and the productivity. He hated how the medication brought him down. But that was what it was designed to do. Without it, the mania warped his thoughts into paranoia and delusion. Other people with bipolar disorder dwell for long periods in the depths of depression. I haven’t seen this aspect of the illness up close. When my father naturally cycled-down from his mania, he would sleep excessively for weeks on end—sometimes for twelve or more hours a day—but he never experienced debilitating depression or contemplated suicide.
Because the symptoms vary so widely, there isn’t a single treatment that works for everyone. Many people spend years working with their therapists before they find the right balance of medications; others, sadly, don’t have the access or resources for treatment. As I thought about the wide spectrum of bipolar disorder, I had to ask myself, was I being critical of All the Bright Places because it didn’t match what I knew about the illness? Did I write off Niven’s character as stereotypical because his illness is portrayed differently from what I experienced with my dad?
As a writer, I understand that the words I choose will have a subtle but concrete influence on the people who hear or read them. When I discuss my father’s illness, it’s important for me to say “my dad had bipolar disorder” rather than “my dad was bipolar.” Using this language distinguishes the difference between the person and that person’s illness. When I say had rather than was, I’m recognizing my father as separate from his disorder. I’m identifying him as the loving father who told me ghost stories at night while we drove across the Midwest and Canada in our Volkswagen camper. I’m also acknowledging that he was sick, not selfish, when he spent every cent he’d ever earned living in a hotel in Paris for two years—money that could have financed college for my brothers and me.
By saying he had an illness rather than was that illness, I’m categorizing the painful memories of his behavior as symptoms: I don’t define him by the times he would stop in the middle of a crowded sidewalk afraid of the microwaves being beamed at us, or how he spent the first ten minutes of every phone conversation listing his resume and accomplishments to identify himself for the government agents who were listening. I show that I understand he couldn’t keep a job because he was sick, not lazy.
I’ve chosen to see my dad as the one who pushed the swing harder each time I asked to go higher and higher; the one who taught me how to fish; the one who boasted to all his friends when I graduated high school with a 4.0 GPA; and the one who held his granddaughter—my niece—for the first time and said, “I feel like my life is complete.” Those are the true memories of who my father was. He was so much more than his illness.
When I discussed this essay with my partner earlier this week, he said to me, “Before I met you, the only things I knew about mental illness I’d seen on TV.” This is not uncommon, and it’s why the way bipolar disorder is represented in books and media is so important. Too many misconceptions persist in our society. For example, you may not know that one in five people will experience a mental health issue in their lifetime. You may not know that someone with a mental illness is not more likely to be violent, but they are more likely to be a victim of violence. Or that mania can be as destructive as depression. Or that people with mental illnesses are “productive members of society.” They go to school, work, and coach their children’s soccer teams.
But people are afraid to talk about their mental health with friends and neighbors. They fear the discrimination and stigma they will face. Research has found that in the United States, there is a widespread preference for social distance from individuals with mental illness; the general public is unwilling to work closely with, marry, or be the neighbor of individuals with mental health problems. They are seen as dangerous, unpredictable, incompetent, and to blame for their illness*.
Why? Because all they know are the unrealistic depictions they’ve seen in media and in books of untreatable madmen and psychos. And because it is a taboo topic, most people will never know that their hair dresser struggles with an eating disorder, or a friend is dealing with postpartum depression, or that their coworker is on medication for an anxiety disorder.
As I read All the Bright Places I was angry at every instance where Niven’s depiction didn’t “get it right.” I don’t want people to think my father was violent or his life was hopeless. I don’t want people to believe that mania is romantic and thrilling, or that mood stabilizers turn people into vacant, emotionless husks. I scoured the internet looking for proof that Niven’s portrayal was wrong, but what I found was something more nuanced.
Reviewers both praised and criticized the book’s depiction of mental illness. A Bustle reviewer wrote, “She strikes right in the heart of what it’s like living with mental illness in contemporary America,” while Disability in Kidlit had a stance more similar to my own: “The book also does an awful job of portraying the means to recovery for depression or any mental illness.”
It would have been easy to disregard the reviews that did not match my thinking, only searching until I found what I wanted to find. But I kept reading and researching. One reader on Goodreads, whose mom had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder but refused treatment, thanked Niven for writing a book about the terrible feeling of loving someone but being powerless to help them. Another said it was the best depiction of what it’s like to be depressed that she’d ever read, and she finally felt understood. Some worried that Niven made light of mental illness, and complained that bipolar disorder was used as a gimmicky plot device.
I found the answer to my friend’s question among the chorus of diverse voices sharing their opinions and insights about the book. I realized that there was value in the opinion of each reviewer, and I was wrong to expect a single perfect narrative. Much like there’s no perfect cure, there is no perfect way to write about mental illness.
Niven had every right to write about her experience loving someone with bipolar disorder. A story based on personal experience is not immune from criticism, and criticism does not de-legitimize that experience. The purpose of scrutinizing a book is to identify where it can be improved, not to suggest it shouldn’t exist. Books like All the Bright Places help open dialogue around the complexities of mental health, so that writers and readers alike are exposed to the many unique perspectives in our society. Dialogue builds empathy and allows us to understand how telling our personal experiences will affect others. All the Bright Places is a touching and emotional story that succeeds in spreading awareness about mental illness, and depression in particular, but it also has its flaws. It is possible to appreciate how this story helps to dispel some misconceptions of mental illness, while also pointing out how it reinforces others.
As I write this essay about my own experience with bipolar disorder, I hope it also will start a dialogue. I want people to discuss what’s working with my words, and where there’s room for improvement. We can’t stop looking at literature and media with a critical eye; doing so is necessary for us to learn and grow. The purpose of criticism isn’t to exact a final judgment of whether something is right or wrong—a false dichotomy that has increasingly paralyzed our society—but instead, it is to engage in an open exchange of ideas that elevates our understanding of the world.
*Parcesepe, Angela M., and Leopoldo J. Cabassa. “Public Stigma of Mental Illness in the United States: A Systematic Literature Review.” Administration and policy in mental health 40.5 (2013): 10.1007/s10488–012–0430–z. PMC. Web. 20 July 2016.