Writing the Darkness: American Writers and Mental Illness

In his 1936 essay for Esquire, “The Crack-Up,” F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote loosely, as if looking sideways at something he didn’t wish to see again, on the fuzzy details of his struggles with alcoholism and resulting depression. He writes of a time when he began to question the surroundings of his own life, and seemed to question his self-worth. “There is another sort of blow that comes from within,” he writes, “that you don’t feel until it’s too late to do anything about it, until you realize with finality that in some regard you will never be as good a man again.”

Many American writers have used the subject of mental illness as a metaphor, a carriage for the real message or idea they wish to imprint upon their readers. Charlotte Perkins Gilman wrote The Yellow Wallpaper in 1892 intent upon exploring the role of women in America at the time, women who spent most of their time in their own homes, confined by a patriarchal society. The message Gilman conveyed with her story was greater than an account of mental illness, for which she heavily relied on her own tone-deaf treatment for depression: a doctor urged her to rest, to cease completely any effort to be creative, and focus instead upon domestic life. Bucking his advice, finally, after 3 months, Gilman began to write again. She later said that she wrote The Yellow Wallpaper “to save people from being driven crazy.”

Far from slowly peeling the wallpaper, but threaded with the same sentiment of coming apart, Holden Caulfield expresses dissatisfaction with his lot. He moves to make a change: standing up to his disrespectful roommate, absconding to New York, where he finds a new set of problems wrapped in the same feelings of loneliness, of being an outsider. He observes the world as if from behind a glass wall, a removal which becomes physical in the year after the events of the book, when he appears in actual seclusion in a tuberculosis rest home.

Esther Greenwood, Sylvia Plath’s protagonist from The Bell Jar, describes the same trapped feeling, explaining her depression as “sitting under the same glass bell jar, stewing in my own sour air.” Joanne Greenberg’s narrator Deborah Blau is another example of an outsider in I Never Promised You A Rose Garden. Deborah creates her own enclosed space, away from the real world, to which she voluntarily escapes when threatened.

The purpose of American writing on mental illness has taken many forms: studies of personal affliction, roadmaps for others who suffer, and bleak portraits of disillusionment, shouts across the divide. One thing these stories and novels have in common, is that they all seem to be looking for an answer, or at least trying to communicate one solitary bit of knowledge about the darkness of the human mind. Each seems to be reaching across the divide of mental illness and trying to make some connection with the rest of the world: for sanity, for sanctuary. Fitzgerald followed “The Crack-Up” with two more accounts in Esquire, titled “Pasting It Together” and “Handle with Care.” In the follow-up essays, he writes of “the succeeding period of desolation and of the necessity of going on,” and settles with the conclusion of becoming “a writer only,” of relieving himself of the burden of becoming something else, something more spectacular, which he had long struggled to become.

It is this resolution, this compulsion to reach out through one’s writing and communicate the depth and confusion of the pain within, which has long set certain American writers apart from others. These writers have, at one time or another, had a desperate road to walk, a different set of challenges to traverse, beginning with the dearest, and most difficult: the struggle to overcome oneself.

-Jona Whipple

May is Mental Health Awareness Month. Visit the website for the National Alliance on Mental Illness for resources, information on how to become involved, and to find events in your area.

If you or someone you know is in immediate danger, call 911, or the NAMI crisis line at 1-800-950-NAMI.

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