Elyn R. Saks,
The Center Cannot Hold: My Journey Through Madness
(Virago, 2007; Hyperion, 2008)

Elyn R. Saks is an accomplished USC professor of law and psychology. She is working on her Ph.D. in psychiatry, has dual appointments in academia, graduated with honors from Yale Law School, and was a Marshall scholar at Oxford. The publication of her memoir of a life with schizophrenia and acute psychosis marks the first time that her colleagues in the professional world will know of her diagnosis. For decades, Saks lived as a mental patient, a shy woman with a small circle of close friends, and as a high-achieving academic who protected her psychological privacy at all costs.

Upon learning that she was writing a memoir, friends wondered if Elyn would be reduced to "that schizophrenic with a job" when her story hit the bookshelves.

Saks will never be "that schizophrenic with a job," and she has made a fantastic contribution for the psychiatry community, for patients suffering from social stigma, for anyone who interacts with those who have a diagnosed psychological disorder, and for fans of memoirs. Saks writes candidly about the workings of her mind, which made her such a success in philosophy, law and psychology, but which also crippled her with delusions and hallucinations. She had a formative experience at a 1970s drug rehab camp (after a minor indiscretion with marijuana) that taught her drugs were bad and any obstacle could be overcome with sheer force of will.

For a schizophrenic, of course, medicine is an absolute necessity, and the disorder can not be overcome with will. Nevertheless, Saks spent decades trying to do just that, fighting her doctor's prescriptions at every turn, secretly reducing her dosages, until finally settling into her career in California with a low dosage of modern medicine and on-going talk therapy. She has stated that the more she accepted her illness, the less her illness defined her, because she was no longer fighting the rip currents of schizophrenia and instead moving through them.

Saks writes, "While medication had kept me alive, it had been psychoanalysis that helped me find a life worth living." Her illness became full-blown at Oxford, during which time she had to take time off from school (fortunately, she was performing independent study) to go through psychoanalysis. Saks makes profound observations about the differences between mental treatment in the U.K. and the U.S. -- restraints are almost never used in the U.K., and certainly not as a punishment for misbehavior, as they are frequently used in the U.S. Also, doctors at Oxford made recommendations, not orders, on patient treatment, and the right of the patient to refuse was a sacred cornerstone. In her legal studies back stateside, Saks focused on the right of patients to refuse medication, as well as the effectiveness and humaneness of using restraints on mental patients. While working as a legal scholar, Saks went through her own personal struggles to find solid psychoanalysis and create a support system in case of psychotic episodes.

For years, schizophrenia was regarded as a grave life sentence. Mothers were even blamed for creating schizophrenic children. Saks notes that while there are many case studies and folk stories about successful people with bipolar disorder, the stories about accomplished schizophrenics are few. Thank you, Ms. Saks, for giving us this story of hope and triumph.

review by
Jessica Lux-Baumann

7 August 2010

Agree? Disagree?
Send us your opinions!

what's new