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First person accounts of mental illness can be fascinating and enlightening.
At what point does one cease to be 'normal' -- i.e. fail to conform socially
to such a degree that one is considered 'mentally ill'?
From the viewpoint of those designated 'mad', there is no clear borderline
indicating at which juncture you have lost sight of 'reality' when all
your experiences only serve to confirm your delusions. After all, we are
all familiar with certain regimes denouncing independent thinkers as insane.
Bill Hannon describes his own experiences of this in careful detail,
charting the highs and lows of manic depression.
For example, his conviction that the FBI wish to hire him as a secret
agent is confirmed to him by 'signs' whereby he believes they are testing
his suitability to work as an agent. Every trivial event is seen as communication
from the FBI, and within the framework of Bill's belief system at the time,
there would be no way of proving the absurdity of his delusions.
For example, he describes (p 219);
'...somebody...drove by playing a rap tape. I thought this
was a clue from the FBI that they liked my taste in music....somebody lit
a firecracker...I didn't flinch. I thought the secret agents wanted to
see if I would flinch.' p 221;
'He [a manic-depressive friend] burped periodically and I started
thinking that was a clue for emphasis. He denied being in the FBI, but
I thought that was part of his job.'
Although Bill Hannon could subsequently recognize his manic-depressive
thoughts as delusional and often paranoid, it is chillingly clear how difficult,
or even impossible, it would have been to permeate his self-constructed
map of 'reality' during a manic or depressive phase. Nothing could unseat
his beliefs as he can provide an apparently rational, and to him, plausible,
interpretation of any mundane experience as one in which the world entirely
revolves around his concerns.
The philosophically interesting point, which Hannon does not address,
is whether 'normal' people are that different. We all make our own social
constructs to explain our own experiences, indeed it is necessary to make
any sense of the world and to go about our usual business. Preferring one
'reality' over another is settled by majority assent, rather than any appeal
to an abstract truth, as we cannot recognize the legitimacy of any belief
system outside the one we ourselves subscribe to. (I am speaking of fundamental
beliefs here; people may differ on religious or political points, but are
more likely to agree on fundamentals such as recognizing a certain color
as 'blue', though there are of course exceptions to this).
Hannon has constructed this autobiographical study with the assistance
of his own medical case notes. This has its own interest, but the ins and
outs of his manic-depressive episodes and subsequent treatment, can get
a bit wearing for the reader. I realize his intention is to provide a complete
account; however, it does not make for a gripping read. Verbatim accounts
of minor conversations which happened years ago, may have seemed significant
in his life, but could do with considerable editing for the reader's benefit.
There are various themes which repeatedly appear. One is his father's
role in Bill Hannon's mental illness -- his father is portrayed as an excessively
possessive and controlling person. Genetic factors are also implicated,
as his mother experienced mental illness. Hannon has a strong sense of
Jewish identity, which also emerges. He relates, for example, an invitation
to use a shower as a veiled threat, linking it with the Jewish Holocaust
experience of being shepherded to 'bathhouses' where poison gas capsules
where released. It is not surprising, with this cultural history, that
his paranoia manifests itself in such ways. He also repeatedly blames his
various doctors for inappropriate treatment and is obsessed with wanting
to sue them. He clearly wants a scapegoat for his pain, and although some
of his criticisms of the medical profession may well be justified, his
reactions and meticulous recording of every medical encounter seem somewhat
There is some attempt made to explain and account for his experiences
of manic depression. From a reader's point of view, I would have preferred
a more 'writerly' approach, which could have made the book more interesting.
There is little real analysis or introspection; what there is, is minimal
and undeveloped. Stylistically, many of the anecdotes could have been dropped,
and those remaining could have been described with a dramatically greater
sense of involving the reader, and in turn create a greater understanding
of the illness. It is possible to write autobiographically about illness
and engage the reader - for example, as Elizabeth Wurtzel does in Prozac
Nation. Unfortunately in my case, Bill Hannon failed to do this,
though I appreciate his effort in recording his experiences as meticulously
as possible. As a diary of experience, it is useful to anyone interested
in mental illness, but I do wish he had made it a better read.
© 2001 Anne Philbrow
Anne Philbrow writes of herself:
I am a self-employed video producer and teach music and drama
on a part-time basis. I have a BA Hons in Philosophy from UCW, Aberystwyth,
UK and have done postgraduate research in Moral and Social Philosophy,
specializing in Animal Rights. In my spare time, I do some freelance writing
(book and theater reviews, articles) and have contributed to Philosophy
in Review. I am a user of mental health services.