#MHYALit: On Narrative Expectations and the Reflection of Truth, by author Stephanie Kuehn
Our goal for the month of January was to have a post a day on Mental Health in YA Lit, which we basically met thanks to the help of a lot of intelligent, creative and amazing people. Today is our last post for January, but it is not the end of the #MHYALit Discussion, we have posts scheduled throughout the remainder of the year and are very open to new posts. We want to cover as much as we can, but we are indeed limited by our own knowledge and experiences. But keep watching TLT and the #MHYALit hashtag because we do have more discussion lined up for you throughout 2016. And today we are honored to host YA author Stephanie Kuehn. You can read all the #MHYALit posts here.
I was excited to be asked to write this blog post for the MHYALit project—mental health advocacy is near and dear to my heart—but I struggled a bit in figuring out exactly what it was I wanted to say. My original intent was to write about a child therapy intervention known as mutual storytelling and to explore the ways in which this technique is mirrored through the act of reading, especially in stories having to do with trauma. But that topic felt distancing somehow. Or didactic. And in considering why it was I felt this way, I came to realize that what I really wanted to discuss was the idea of context and audience, and the ways in which narrative expectations can shift depending on who a book is for and who it’s about.
Some of my thinking around this issue was sparked through a twitter discussion with author Amy Rose Capetta. With regard to the place that mental illness has in literature, Amy noted that the reality of mental illness “resists a lot of our traditional narrative structures…our trad. narratives often turn it into something it is NOT.”
This statement resonated with me in a lot of ways. We talk often about mirrors in literature, in what it means to see yourself reflected on the page, to have your identity and experiences validated. To know that what you think and feel are real, despite a world that strives to tell you otherwise. And yet, inherently there are expectations in the medium of literature that ask us to fit our stories into certain kinds of packages. Effects must have causes. Beginnings must have acceptable endings. Clarity, change, meaning, insight, all must be delivered. To this end, when we write about mental illness, our narrators are deemed unreliable. Their stories are regarded as harrowing or affecting or brave. Even better, important. Their words and worlds are valued for what the non-mentally ill can glean from them, not for those whose truths they reflect.
Are they still mirrors at this point? Or does the necessary distortion that comes from fitting a non-normative experience into a normative frame turn it into something else?
A second thing that happened recently was my reading of Tabitha Suzuma’s duology A Note of Madness and A Voice in the Distance. These books are two contemporary novels about one young man, Flynn Laukonen, who is an ambitious concert pianist attending a music school in London and who is diagnosed with Bipolar II disorder.
After enjoying and finishing the first novel, I admit I wasn’t sure why there was a second. It’s a fairly quiet and self-contained story about Flynn, his talent, his illness, and his small group of friends. But as I dove into the second book, which jumps ahead a bit and follows Flynn through his final year at music school, it started to make sense. The second book is still a quiet story with the same characters and conflicts, but by stretching it out over two books and a span of years, you get a genuine sense of the reality of what it’s like to adapt to a diagnosis that requires ongoing management and treatment—and which likely isn’t going away.
Living with bipolar disorder isn’t about the drama of a single moment of crisis, and Suzuma clearly knows it would be disingenuous to tell Flynn’s story that way. So rather than end with his diagnosis—the emotional climax of the first book—by continuing his narrative the way that she does, the author is able to show that for Flynn, his diagnosis is really the start of his journey. There’s so much more that comes after. His emotional adjustment and acceptance isn’t immediate; he doesn’t really understand what bipolar disorder is nor does he want to. He has real moments of anger, despair, boredom, passion, resentment, and hope. His medications have side effects and they take time to work—and sometimes they fail. He goes to therapy. He has people around him who love and support him, but who also struggle to understand what he’s going through and how to maintain their own emotional boundaries. He and his girlfriend must navigate what it means and what it looks like to have an equitable relationship with another person when you’re worried about their mental health. Above all else, Flynn is a very talented and ambitious musician, and his process to integrate his illness and his music in way that will ultimately work for him is a large part of his story. And despite my initial reservations about the format the story was presented in, my final takeaway was that these books were written exactly as they were meant to be. They’re for Flynn. Not just about him.
In summary, I guess what I want to say is this: The essence of mental illness is pain. It hurts.
One of the most powerful things I read last year was Mark Lukach’s essay “My Lovely Wife in the Psych Ward.” It’s long, but I recommend reading it, the whole thing. Because it’s not about the tragedy of his wife falling ill, it’s about how her illness and his love for her has forced him to push past his desire to protect her at all costs and to consider mental illness and mental health treatment in a different way—a way that not only keeps her safe, but which also maintains her humanity and respects the integrity of her personhood.
For myself, I know that when I sit down to write, I don’t intend to be a therapist. Or a teacher. Or to fulfill any role that is didactic or directive other than to generate empathy. In honesty, I’m not even thinking about whether what I’m writing is for or about or anything like that. My only goal is to say this is what it feels like.
But for those of us who don’t know what it feels like, maybe it’s time to stop asking others to fit a narrative that makes us comfortable. Or one that fulfills our expectations of how a story’s meant to be told. For what it’s worth, sometimes what seems wrong is exactly the point. That’s the mirror. And by sitting with our discomfort, by being willing to honor and bear witness to pain that may not be ours and which we may not understand, isn’t that how we humanize others? Isn’t that how we teach ourselves to really see them?
For what it’s worth.
Meet Our Guest Blogger
Stephanie Kuehn is the critically acclaimed author of four young adult novels, including Charm & Strange, which won the ALA’s William C. Morris Award for best debut novel. Booklist has praised her work as “Intelligent, compulsively readable literary fiction with a dark twist.” She lives in Northern California and is a post-doctoral fellow in clinical psychology. Learn more at stephaniekuehn.com.
About The Smaller Evil
Sometimes the greater good requires the smaller evil.
17-year-old Arman Dukoff is struggling with severe anxiety and a history of self-loathing when he arrives at an expensive self-help retreat in the remote hills of Big Sur. He’s taken a huge risk—and two-thousand dollars from his meth-head stepfather—for a chance to “evolve,” as Beau, the retreat leader, says.
Beau is complicated. A father figure? A cult leader? A con man? Arman’s not sure, but more than anyone he’s ever met, Beau makes Arman feel something other than what he usually feels—worthless.
The retreat compound is secluded in coastal California mountains among towering redwoods, and when the iron gates close behind him, Arman believes for a moment that he can get better. But the program is a blur of jargon, bizarre rituals, and incomprehensible encounters with a beautiful girl. Arman is certain he’s failing everything. But Beau disagrees; he thinks Arman has a bright future—though he never says at what.
And then, in an instant Arman can’t believe or totally recall, Beau is gone. Suicide? Or murder? Arman was the only witness and now the compound is getting tense. And maybe dangerous.
As the mysteries and paradoxes multiply and the hints become accusations, Arman must rely on the person he’s always trusted the least: himself.
Filed under: #MHYALit
About Karen Jensen, MLS
Karen Jensen has been a Teen Services Librarian for almost 30 years. She created TLT in 2011 and is the co-editor of The Whole Library Handbook: Teen Services with Heather Booth (ALA Editions, 2014).
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