Reviewed by Thomas Levenson
Roberta Payne, a polylingual scholar and translator has just published her first book of prose, Speaking To My Madness. It is remarkable, wonderful, absolutely worth your attention.
The book is, most simply, a memoir of a life lived in contention with that singular disease of the mind: schizophrenia. Payne leaps (in fine classical style), in medias res, opening her account at what she tells us is the midpoint of her odyssey through her pathologies, speaking from within a locked ward for the mentally ill in Ames, Iowa. She writes:
"My meds had not yet kicked in for the night. I stood in bare feet in the middle of the floor and looked at the beds, the mirror, the window. The air around me curled up at the edges. It laughed at the fear spurting in my chest, just as the Evil Ones spurted through the night on their way to their own galaxy.” [Italics in the original]
That brief passage conveys one of Payne’s great strengths: transforming feeling — terror, often — into vivid prose. From that in-the-midst-of-it opening at Ames, Payne steps backwards to the year she spent in a master’s program at Stanford, when she disintegrated severely enough to wind up in hospital for the first time. Her description of that crisis sets the tone for much of the first half of the book:
I drove home. On Palm Drive, while I was listening to rock on the radio, I felt my mind change. I was aware of the same things – palm trees, bicycle riders, cars -- but they were all far away and magical. “MacArthur Park” lasted all the way home. It had a weird, doomsday authority over me. I felt fragile. Then I felt hot pain rise through my chest and spread out through my veins, just as it did when I drank at night. Right on the edge of panic.
When I got home, I went and lay down on the grass under the hot sun and submitted to the pain. I couldn’t move until it got cool late that afternoon.
I went into my little cottage and sat down on the sofa.
Huge, invisible razor blades were attacking my eyes horizontally.
My body shook all over.
I wanted to kill myself. Almost. In my mind I went right to that edge and knew that I wanted to try to kill myself but be found while I was still alive.
But someone had to find out how bad it was. Somebody had to know. Before nightfall. The night poised before me promised full-assault fear. There was no way I could get through that night.
Unbelievably, Liz, an old roommate of mine, knocked at my door, opened it herself, and came in. Blood was spurt-spurting crimson from my arm.
I cringed for doing that to her.
Payne’s story goes down hill from there. We follow her as she pursues the opportunities her clearly formidable mind opens up: graduate studies at Harvard; mastery of language after language (Italian, ancient Greek, medieval Greek, Latin…), Ph.D work at the University of Denver. We wince, and then grieve, as at each stop, panic, depression, fear, alcohol — buckets and buckets of booze — and then full-blown schizophrenia derail this voice, this marvelous, literate voice at once narrating and living the train wreck unfolding across the page.
We learn about the pain of her childhood home, populated by a mother presented initially as uncaring, harsh, terrifying, a distant and uncomprehending father, a sister who, as the book proceeds, is revealed to be almost utterly without empathy — or perhaps better, as thoroughly terrified of whatever existential challenge Payne’s illness seems to embody. Payne describes in detail what happens as her schizophrenia advances, to the point where, in the hospital ward in Ames with which the book opens, she edges toward suicide…and then pulls back.
The second half of the book takes up what comes after her halt at the point of self-murder. It’s a very long way back — years, decades of painstaking, painful, courageous and ultimately successful labor, advanced with the help of modern pharmacology, persistent and sensitive talk therapy, AA, the rooted kindness of an admirable pair of Episcopalian clergy, and, in one of Payne’s most subtly framed challenges to expectations raised earlier in her narrative, the love and care of parents who had seemed near-villainous in the early passages of the book.
By now what Payne’s disease has taken from her is so apparent, so empathetically available, that I found myself rooting for her at every turn — and terribly fearful that something terrible might happen as I flipped each page. But this latter story is one of renewal. As Payne climbs out of the dark years she shows without saying what the reader can clearly recognize as the evidence of her strength, her capacity for restitution, for kindness and restitution and forgiveness. The Roberta Payne who emerges through the final hundred pages of the book is someone it becomes a privilege to know, and one whose virtues make what her illness stole from her the more terrible.
This is supposed to be a review-site for works on science and related fields, so let me switch gears for a moment to say what else Payne achieves here: her story amounts to a case study in the advances achieved over the last half century in the understanding and treatment of serious mental illness. At the beginning of that period and in the early days of Payne’s troubles, talk, persuasion, some righting of wrong thoughts were seen as the royal road to treatment (at least for someone in Payne’s circumstances — educated, ferociously intelligent, articulate and, as a Stanford student, an ex-officio member of the elite). Each of her various crises were, at least initially, seen as discrete problems — depression in one pocket, alcoholism in another and so on. Ultimately, she achieved a clear and — for her — appropriate diagnosis, began to receive medication that over time became properly suited to her particular chemistry and physiology, and was able to return to the world supported be an infrastructure of therapeutic and social support. What gets her and keeps her out of her madness was not available to her, to anyone, in the tie when she first fell ill. Payne shows what that means with utter, brutal, and ultimately relieving detail.
Throughout both her descent into Hades and her return, Payne tests a claim she makes to one of her doctors midway through the book: that one can’t convey the experience of schizophrenia in words. Of course, she’s right. It is impossible to give the full experience of any interior state, any landscape, anything but words in words. Writers represent reality. We don’t replicate it, anymore than the painted illusion of three dimensional space in Raphael’s School of Athens is anything more than a flat depiction, blobs of color on a plane. We can’t experience Payne’s disease, no matter how well she writes about it.
And yet, she’s wrong. Speaking to My Madness is much more than a memoir, though its a very fine remembrance indeed. It is a meditation on how life may be lived. In describing as clearly as she has what schizophrenia did to her and what she has done to live with, through, and beyond it, Payne has conveyed a four dimensional human experience. It’s not the same as being there, of course, but the book evokes imagination; it compels an attempt at empathy. I think it would please the classicist in her (I hope it does) to say that what she has done here is a thoroughly compelling display of mimesis — the art of description that, despite its necessary incompleteness, powerfully conveys the meaning of the whole. Payne is simply a formidably skilled writer.
It’s that skill that gives power to a proposition that Payne makes explicitly about two thirds of the way through the work: that psychosis, for all the pain and terror involved, is yet “a deeply enriching experience” as Payne put it, borrowing the phrase from some unremembered earlier reading. The person writing the book, the voice we hear, is so compelling, so much a companion, that it seems that, yes, Payne’s illness must have given her something, sensitivity, heightened feeling, whatever.
That’s a comfort that doesn’t survive her telling. Reporting a conversation with her dearest friend she writes: ”you don’t grow through schizophrenia … It’s a fucking impediment and a waste of a lifetime.” That seems right — and Payne is writer enough to give that conclusion an air of necessity. The fabric of her story, the utter courage with which she describes her worst days, makes it impossible to sustain the illusion that her terrors compensated her in any real measure. Anyone who’s suffered through the kinds of wretchedness Payne documents, or anyone who’s watched someone they love do so, knows the costs involved.
But even so, there is a reward, scant comfort to those afflicted, that comes for those of us invited to listen to Roberta Payne’s madness. By the time she arrives at her resting point, speaking with a beloved companion, in the midst of a beauty her brain allows her to recognize, having mastered thought and feeling and the language needed to express both, Payne has delivered this marvelous book. Her readers’ lives, if not her own, are undisputedly better for it.
I loved this book. I’m sure it has flaws, and I could probably meditate a bit and offer the usual reviewers caveats about this or that. But every now and then one comes across a writer, a voice, a text that lights up what’s involved in being human. Roberta Payne is such a writer. Speaking to My Madness is such a work.
Tom Levenson writes books (most recently Newton and the Counterfeiter) and makes films about science, its history, and whatever else catches his magpie's love of shiny bits. His work has been honored by a Peabody, a National Academies Science Communication and an AAAS Science Journalism Award, among others. By day he professes at MIT, where he directs the Graduate Program in Science Writing.