Tag Archives: mental health

The Bell Jar

Classic literature about a young woman living with depression

Content warning: mental illness, depression, suicide

This is a book that really doesn’t need an introduction. To be honest, I’m not entirely certain where I found my copy. It has no price on it. It’s a 2005 edition so the pages are starting to yellow a little but it’s in good condition. Maybe I found it in my street library, or someone else’s. I’ve had it sitting on my to-read shelf for a long time and, look, I’m not going to lie, I picked it up and put it down a few times, but eventually I managed to settle into it.

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The backdrop of this photo is from Issue 1 of Lost Magazine, unfortunately no longer in print. The photographer of the model is Simon Tubey.

“The Bell Jar” by Sylvia Plath is a novel about Esther, a university student in her late teens who wins a prestigious summer internship in New York with a group of eleven other young women. From a lower middle-class family in Boston, it’s the opportunity of a lifetime for Esther. However, up close, the lifestyle isn’t as glamorous as she anticipated. When her run of winning scholarships and opportunities suddenly runs dry, Esther’s mental state plummets and after attempting suicide she is admitted to a psychiatric ward.

It’s difficult to read this book entirely as fiction given that Plath herself died after committing suicide shortly after its publication. It is beautifully written and over 50 years after publication is still refreshing in its frankness. There is a brilliant scene early in the book where after attending a very fancy function, the entire contingent falls ill with food poisoning. It sounds a bit trite to say, but this book reads like it must have been far ahead of its time. Plath is scathing about how meaningless the work at the magazine is, and depicts the way Esther’s cynicism begins to bleed into everything and how she fails to find meaning in her life in nothing short of a brilliant way. I also thought that Plath’s description of life in a psychiatric ward, and the experimental and harmful treatments from the time that Esther is put through, was both horrifying and very well done.

When reading books that were written long ago, I always get the strange feeling that nothing and everything is different. There were certainly plenty of observations that Plath made about sex, sexism, the commodification of beauty and class that still hold true today. However, one of the most difficult things about reading older books is seeing the way that race – even indirectly – was handled. There are quite a few instances where Esther compares her own appearance unfavourably towards people of different ethnicities or describes a person of colour’s appearance in a stereotyped way, and honestly, it is jarring when it happens. I also wasn’t super happy with how Joan, Esther’s boyfriend’s ex-girlfriend who is also a lesbian, was handled. And yes, yes, I know that people are a product of their times, but that doesn’t make people intrinsically right and ideas and attitudes, no matter how reflective of the time they were expressed in, can never be immune to criticism.

This is a short, sharp novel that is an illuminating snapshot of the time and still, to this day, has a lot to say about mental health, gender equality and class. It is difficult to separate the book from the author’s own life, but it does stand on its own and remains a cutting and raw exposé of life as a young woman struggling with mental illness and straddling a class divide.

 

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Filed under Book Reviews, Classics, General Fiction

The Skeleton Diaries

If there is anything that gets me out of the house to an event, it’s books. Last year I was invited to go along to a young professionals networking event, which sounded the exact opposite of how I’d normally spend my time. However, something caught my eye on the e-invite. It was being held at Muse, one of my favourite Canberra bookstores, and there was going to be an author talk. Well, that was enough for me! I went along, and once the networking part was out of the way, Australian National University graduating student Rachael Stevens took the stage to talk about mental health, overcoming anorexia and her self-published book. After the event, she stayed back and signed copies – and of course I bought one.

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“The Skeleton Diaries” is a memoir by Rachael Stevens about when she was hospitalised in 2007 at 15 years old for anorexia. The memoir begins when her mother takes her to see a counsellor who suggests she keeps a diary. At first, Rachael’s diary entries feign confusion about what’s going on, distancing herself even further from others. However, as the book progresses and Rachael’s health reaches breaking point, she is forced to acknowledge the truth: she has anorexia and her body is shutting down. Rachael is first admitted to a paediatric ward before being transferred to a youth psychiatric ward and there is placed on an unrelenting and unsympathetic treatment regime. However, while suffering outwardly from the state of her body and the treatment by hospital staff, inside Rachael begins to cultivate the tiniest flower of hope which helps her to overcome her disordered thinking.

This book is a powerful insight into disordered thinking: the disordered thinking of a person suffering from anorexia, and the disordered thinking of society around the treatment of mental health. Some of the most striking passages in this book are about Rachael’s silent cries to be treated as a person, and not have her worth determined as simply a collection of symptoms or numbers on a scale. Although only 15 when she first wrote in her diary, I was really impressed by Stevens’ clear yet compelling writing style. It is a brave thing to do to send your story out in the world, especially when you are so young, and I did feel compared to other memoirs of this nature, Stevens was rather guarded about the details of her life and the trauma and abuse she experienced. However, the focus of this story is really on anorexia and the havoc it wreaks on your mind and body.

A really important book that is a stark reminder that this country still has a long way to go when it comes to prioritising, understanding and funding mental health issues.

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Filed under Australian Books, Book Reviews, Non Fiction, Signed Books

Small Things

I first heard about this little graphic novel in the news a few weeks ago. It had made news because already renowned Perth graphic novelist Mel Tregonning had committed suicide before she finished it. Her family contacted Shaun Tan, arguably Australia’s most well-known graphic novelist, and asked him to help them finish it in her memory. I saw one of Canberra’s loveliest bookstores Book Passion had some copies, and they very kindly kept one aside for me until I could pick it up on the weekend.

“Small Things” by Mel Tregonning is a graphic novel about a young boy who seems to be struggling. At school and at home he is plagued by tiny shadows and he starts to feel like the cracks are starting to show. His only solace is his little nightlight that chases the shadows away at night, but it’s not enough to help him from withdrawing more and more into himself.

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No book exists without some kind of context, and the story of how this book came to be is as heartbreaking as the story contained within its pages. There are no words, only images but it is crystal clear that this is a graphic novel about depression.  “Small Things” is an important work and really highlights the need for empathy and to reach out to one another.

Some things speak louder than words, so I won’t write more about this than to say that this is one of the finest books I’ve read this year and I highly recommend it to everyone.

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Filed under Book Reviews, Graphic Novels