08 November 2013

On a story of paranoid schizophrenia

As I posted on 1 September, Clive Travis' memoir (rather too cosy a label, though) has been published. This is the review I published on Amazon --more or less; I lost some last minute edits...
Picking up this book is like being accosted by the Ancient Mariner. “He holds him with his glittering eye—/ The Wedding-Guest stood still,/ And listens like a three years' child:/ The Mariner hath his will.// The Wedding-Guest sat on a stone:/ He cannot choose but hear;/ And thus spake on that ancient man,/ The bright-eyed Mariner…” (Although Travis is not that old.)

It is a personal account of experiencing years of paranoid schizophrenia, both untreated and treated. The story unfolds inexorably and compellingly, although the reader has no idea where it is going. The real world and the delusional world drift vertiginously in and out of focus. It gives the lie (in Travis' account) to the notion that the world of a person with schizophrenia is "meaningless"; on the contrary, his account in the earlier part of the book is of a world too full of (delusional) meaning. Everything, every word in a headline, every glint of a metallic sign, every musical reference in an advertisement, carries a message. And without any artifice, with a bald but rigid first-person narrative, Travis takes us there.

And it is not all depressing--sometimes he even enjoys the new insights into the world vouchsafed by his MTRUTH, a device (he believes) implanted in him by security services in order to monitor and control his behaviour, and there are indeed flashes of humour. And it is all illuminated by his encyclopaedic knowledge of later 20th-century music and culture (which I don’t share so I missed many of the references).

I won’t say I couldn’t put it down. Often I was only too relieved to put it down. But I had to pick it up again… This is not just playing with a cliche in book reviews; what Travis conveys so vividly is that hallucinations and delusions and mood swings are not things one can opt into or out of if you are mentally ill. They are there all the time, they your experience, and you can’t stand aside from them. And so it is with this book--when I was not reading it, it haunted me…

The classic literary material on the experience of schizophrenia is buffered and filtered. Apart from the technical literature, I Never Promised You a Rose Garden is not just ancient but also clearly “novelised” (and arguably not an account of schizophrenia by a modern definition); Mary Barnes; a journey through madness and even One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (which is principally an anti-psychiatry rant) are slanted to favour an ideological perspective… This is not a literature review, but Travis has no axe to grind, no angle to argue; he is amazingly non-judgemental about the professionals he encounters; however shadowy their portrayal. He does not blame, although readers might not be so generous, in the face of frequent apparent indifference and inflexibility.

It’s a weighty book, both literally and figuratively; the format is large and the margins narrow and the main narrative is 474 pages. It does not pretend to be literature, and I'm sure it will attract some critical reviews by people who want to read it as such, but that is not the point. In a sense it is the antithesis of literature. It seeks to remain true to Travis' experience, and if that experience is rambling and picaresque, that is what the book is. If it were more literary, I would have taken an axe to big sections--the account of six months in Africa is fascinating but over-long; the chapters on his exploits in Cornwall and Edinburgh are testimony to Travis’ resilience and resourcefulness, despite his illness, but don’t at the time add much to our understanding of the whole story, although they make more sense once you get to the end. The style is critical to the experience of reading it. It keeps you off-balance; “Is this actually happening? Is it a delusion?”

Some years ago, I was much involved in training for people undertaking statutory duties under the Mental Health Acts. I and my colleagues struggled to find authentic, no-axe-grinding accounts to use as case-studies. Alongside the dispassionate clinical exemplars of the diagnostic manuals which identified "behaviors" and "symptoms", we were looking for real, specific, personal experiences. The story Travis tells is exactly that but also much more. I wish it had been available then, and I’m sure that a wide range of readers will find it eye-opening and illuminating now.
Disclosure: I do know the author, who now contributes to such courses, and I did attend the launch event.
...and he did offer to buy me a pint this evening in the pub, but I refused in the interests of critical integrity (and pomposity).

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