I am so pleased to introduce Hannah Moskowitz as the final poster for Shattering Stigmas on my blog before my wrap-up. I think that her message about writing more subtle mental illness rep is super important and a great reminder as we close this event. You can find Hannah, who has written several young adult novels including A History of Glitter and Blood, Not Otherwise Specified and Gena/Finn (with Kat Helgeson) among others, on Twitter or her website.
CW: General discussion of mental illness, including bipolar disorder and eating disorders, throughout.
Everything’s louder in fiction. Conversations are snappier, kisses are deeper, death tolls are higher. It’s like when I was in high school theatre, putting on makeup before a show. Up close, you look ridiculous with your overdrawn lips and bright patches of blush, but once you’re washed out under the stage lights, that’s how the back row sees you. A book needs to be able to hold its own against all the other books, and God knows there’s always going to be something out there flashier and grabbier than yours. I’ve yet to meet a contemporary author—hell, probably any author—who hasn’t heard from a critique partner or an agent or a publisher, or maybe even just from that nagging voice of self-doubt in their head, that their book is too quiet. That it won’t stand out in the marketplace. That teenagers wouldn’t pick it up compared to something louder.
I am such a fan of quiet books (which I guess makes my first metaphor here kind of off, since my lipstick stash would tell you I’m definitely not a fan of quiet makeup) but I think when we’re talking about YA books about mental illness, it goes beyond personal preference. We need those quiet books in a way that I’m not sure publishing understands. It’s really, really important, and to get into why we need to talk about mirrors and windows.
Mirrors and windows is a concept we talk about a lot in YA, and about how teenagers need books that function as each one for them. A window is a book that lets you see into another culture, whether that’s a straight kid reading about queer kids, a white teenager reading a Desi love story, or a healthy person reading a dystopian with a chronically ill hero. It’s the base explanation of why we read, and it’s definitely important. It’s how we learn about things that we don’t personally experience, without having to go up to someone and interrogate them and intrude on their lives. We can read without bothering anyone. It’s voyeurism in the best way. Then there are mirrors. That’s when you see yourself in a book, whether for the first time or the hundredth. You’re not here to learn; you’re here to feel like you’ve been heard, like you’re not alone. Ideally, it’s a more comfortable reading experience, because you’re seeing yourself. You’re not stretching yourself the way you are when you look into someone else’s world. You are safe and protected.
In reality it doesn’t always work out that nicely. Especially in books about mental illness. What people who write about mental illness for teenagers need to keep in mind is that the vast, vast majority of mentally ill teenagers have not been formally diagnosed, because that would involve talking to their parents and doctors in a way that’s difficult for a neurotypical kid, never mind a mentally ill one. I’ve known I was bipolar since I was in middle school, but I went undiagnosed until I was nineteen. There were people close to me who had absolutely no idea. And that’s not something that, reading about bipolar disorder in fiction, you’d ever think was possible. Bipolar disorder in fiction is unhideable. It’s catastrophic. There is nothing quiet about it, because there can’t be anything quiet about your book.
And that leads a lot of teenagers—including me, who’d known since she was eleven that something was wrong—to question themselves. Maybe I’m actually fine. Maybe it’s supposed to be this hard. I must be normal, because I am more normal than this.
So by having only these loud mental illness portrayals, we’re not only showing neurotypical people that mentally ill people are so different from them; we’re showing mentally ill teenagers that mentally ill people are so different from them, too.
Not so good.
When it comes to things like cutting or eating disorders, having only over the top portrayals introduces a whole new problem. When you’re writing a book to be a window, you have to introduce people to your topic, and in a book about say, anorexia, that often amounts to writing an orientation packet on how to develop an eating disorder. And as if that weren’t enough, teenagers who have eating disorders are going to read it and see everything more they could be doing, how much they don’t count as someone with a real eating disorder because theirs is not as big and bright and dramatic as what’s in a big, bright, dramatic book.
I’m not saying that there aren’t people with mental illness who live these stories that, to me, seem sensationalized. These stories wouldn’t exist if they didn’t happen to people. But this is the risk we run when we try to use one story to encompass a whole range of experiences. It’s a problem when you’re writing about any marginalized experience, but I’m not sure it’s as damaging in other topics as it is for mental illness. If teenage-me read a book with a Jewish main character that didn’t feel right to me, that can be uncomfortable, sure, but it wouldn’t have the devastating effect on my sense of self that a book telling me my mental illness wasn’t bad enough would.
So here’s what I ask of writers, publishers, and readers: make quiet mental illness books.
Give us something soft. Show us the range of experiences.
You don’t have to play to the back row every time. Play to that one girl in the front, leaning in, trying to see.