Elevate Difference

The Center Cannot Hold: My Journey through Madness

We rarely have the opportunity to hear from people diagnosed with schizophrenia. As a result, the disease remains misunderstood and maligned, confused with multiple personality disorder, and the butt of several jokes. In writing The Center Cannot Hold, Elyn Saks has, in part, set out to remedy this, and she has acquitted herself most admirably.

Saks’s life is an interesting one. Raised in Miami, Florida, she exhibited, as she can recall, a few early signs of the disorder in high school and in college, but her first serious break arrived while she was getting her Master’s degree at Oxford University. That year, Saks experienced both a stay in a mental hospital and her first relationship with a talk therapist. (The latter is a treatment she strongly advocates, although it is relatively rare to see it used to treat schizophrenia.) The stark detail in which Saks limns her schizophrenic breaks brings the reader immediately into her mind, yet the tone of the writing is so matter-of-fact that Saks’s mind, the mind of a woman both brilliant and deeply mentally ill, does not seem at all unusual. This is her gift as a writer: emotions, mental disorders, therapeutic relationships, and love are all treated as facts, not as things to fight or justify, but simply as the truths of a life. Saks makes schizophrenia real to her readers, as it has always been to her.

The pillars, and the beauty, of Saks’ story are the relationships she has created in her life and shows to her readers: relationships with therapists are portrayed as clearly, and with as much significance, as those with her close friends, her family, and later her husband. Love, Saks demonstrates, is a powerful stabilizing force, even in the face of the inevitable devastation that mental illness brings. In addition, Saks has used her academic work and interests to center herself since her youth, and as readers watch, Saks become what she is today: a professor of legal philosophy tremendously respected in her field, specializing in the legal rights of the mentally ill. We see that her work, the academic niche she has created for herself over time, has come to a graceful symbiosis with her acceptance of her illness. As she advocates, as a passionate writer and thinker, for others like her who have fewer resources, she comes to accept the role that her schizophrenia has played, and will always play, in her life, and also clarifies for herself that it is not the only defining factor.

The Center Cannot Hold is a bold, disturbing, compelling, original book. Elyn Saks is telling a story rarely heard, and she does so with uncommon skill and style.

Written by: Gemma Cooper-Novack, October 17th 2008