The Invisible Ones: The Speculative Fictions of Mental Health Discourse

I was at a meeting at the start of the 2013-2014 school year and we were at the portion of the day where we were discussing disabilities and equity. When the slideshow finished, I put up my hand—something I don’t do often at large-form, no-name events.

“I’m concerned,” I said. “Because there wasn’t a mention of invisible disabilities.”

The slideshow had—and for very good reasons —covered physical disability, radicalized biases, and religious differences. Mental health, however, had been completely skipped over.

Strange, I thought, in a world where so many students struggle with anxiety disorders, personality disorders, mood disorders, and learning disabilities. As a student leader, I knew how important it was to make sure appropriate accessibility structures were put in place. As a student who struggles with depression, anxiety, and other invisible mental needs, I know how much I appreciate it when they’re in place for me.

“Sorry,” said the girl at the front. “I mean, I’d love to talk about equity for hours. But there just isn’t time for everything.”

Equity: there just isn’t enough time for everything.

I can’t blame her, really. There isn’t. Equity is often at best treated as a boring requirement, just specific topics that must be covered in order to make sure people behave in certain institutionalized manners.

The treatment of all minorities needs work, I could hear her say, but we need to make sure the ones that people can see are being taken care of first.

The ones we can’t see are less likely to be heard.

Now let’s talk about this in literature.

Just before the #WeNeedDiverseBooks campaign took over twitter, I read this article on mental health in YA literature. Take a look at it—it’s well worth the read, and is what inspired me to write this post.

For those of you who don’t read it, here’s the skinny: in intrusion fantasy, the fact that main characters are more comfortable with magic actually existing in the real world than they are with having a possible mental disorder (which they never speak to an authority figure about) harms the normalization of accessibility needs in contemporary culture. Why, in any world, is it more reassuring to realize that the vampires who want to kill you exist, rather than having a good old-fashioned mental disorder that causes hallucinations?

Personally, I’d go for the hallucinations.

In the first issue of The Spectatorial, we published an essay on Puella Magi Madoka Magica, which my boyfriend and I have taken to describing as: “what would happen if the Sailor Soldiers got PTSD from their battles”. We found this series refreshing and engaging. It addressed the trauma the characters were going through and managed to keep the plot from revolving around that trauma, something that is rarely accomplished. Unrealistic reactions run rampant in YA speculative fiction, as Olivia writes in the linked post above.

Take everyone’s favourite discussion piece: Twilight. The portrayal of Bella’s depression after Edward leaves in New Moon is harmful because it misrepresents mental illness in a way that suggests it’s for attention, and can be solved by that same attention being given from a specific source. This suggests that a woman, or a stereotypically submissive partner, needs a supernatural amount of attention from a man, or a stereotypically dominant partner. Edward is often considered the abusive party of the two in contemporary discussions, but a partner who threatens to commit suicide unless their significant other does what they want them to is severely abusive. This isn’t recognized in the text, and is romanticized by its readers. Mental instability is normalized as a romantic ideal, and the requirement of a superhuman level of care is the only thing that can normalize Bella’s behaviour again. The speculative part of the text superimposes an unhealthy role onto male/dominant partners where they must be afraid of and are responsible for the female/submissive partner’s self-destruction.

But this isn’t by any means just a YA literature issue. The intrusion fantasy complex Olivia describes is present in many classic adult literature books. And since reading her article, I’ve taken to considering some other damaging mental health messages certain widely accepted tropes have solidified:

  • The higher stakes represented in fantasy novels should be met with equal reactions.
  • A protagonist in a popularized fantasy is often recovering from trauma and abuse without categorizing it as such. Harry Potter, Luke Skywalker, Fitzchivalry—the strong white male lead who wants nothing better than to get even with the person who’s hurt them. To me, this represents an interesting fantasy where the victim eventually heals only after managing to successfully challenge and beat their abuser. (Jung’s shadow-narrative puts an interesting spin on this, but taken literally, these narratives are interestingly confrontational.)
  • We need more characters who are experiencing mental difficulties and who talk about it: people who are further along the healing process, at different levels, interacting in different ways. Not just the HEALED and the SEVERELY TRAUMATIZED.
  • Abusive people are not cool just because they’re supernatural. Privilege, whether it’s on the food chain or in terms of God-to-man, should not be an excuse for bad behaviour. “Belief” is often enough for a character to gain a hold on their magical powers. It would be great if we got closer to the characters who went through this process, and could sense what underlying needs—since they obviously can’t access a normative amount of magic, or social prowess—these characters address. Not bluntly; just sensitively. This applies whether it’s Schmendrick the Magician or Elsa the Snow Queen.

Like the girl who spoke at that meeting, I could go on here for a while. But in the midst of the #WeNeedDiverseBooks campaign, I’d like to finish by pitching something else we need: critical readers who analyze how mental health operates in speculative texts. We need to demand psychologically accurate and sensitive portrayals of characters’ experiences from our authors. The unrealistic portrayal of mentality in fantasy books is, I feel, one of the things that keeps speculative fiction separated from popular literary works.

Our speculative characters shouldn’t be blank slates onto whom we can superimpose psychoanalytic archetypes—they should live and breathe the same as their general fiction counterparts.

Moreover, they should talk. They should make themselves visible.

(And also they should probably start letting doctors know when they see fairies chillin’ DT. Just saying.)

-contributed by Kerrie McCreadie


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