Illness and Disability

The proliferation of trauma writing in the past few years is a double-edged sword. While giving public voice to subjects once relegated to the dark lessens stigma and creates agency, there is almost an expectation for women writers to reveal or perform their trauma, as well as a risk of exploitation and retraumatisation.

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World War II drew the still-marginal profession of psychiatry into the war effort, with psychiatrists screening recruits for mental disorders and predisposing histories. Trauma, or the fear of trauma, hovered. But after treaties were signed and soldiers returned to their loved ones, and the memory of war faded for those not condemned to be visited by it daily, what role was psychiatry to play? In Mad by the Millions, historian of science and psychiatrist Harry Yi-Jui Wu writes about the peace time ambitions of postwar psychiatry, which were marshalled in the unlikely, bureaucratic setting of the International Social Psychiatry Project (ISPP) run by the Mental Health Unit of the World Health Organization.

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Kylie Maslen's début essay collection, Show Me Where It Hurts, is an intimate exploration of living with chronic illness. Maslen describes her own experiences with the invisible illness she has lived with for the last twenty years, delving into its daily reality while incorporating music, literature, television, film, online culture, and more. Kate Crowcroft, who reviews the book in ABR's November issue, describes it as 'essential reading for those of us with the privilege of having a body that behaves itself'.

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Virginia Woolf wrote that when trying to communicate about pain as a sick woman ‘language at once runs dry’. How does one talk about wounds without fetishising their workings, and how in a society where pain is taboo does one speak of it authentically? In Show Me Where it Hurts, writer and journalist Kylie Maslen balances the difficulty of this equation: telling the story of her disability and having that story remain fundamentally unspeakable. The act of telling remains for Maslen ‘a rejection of language’, and yet the thing on the table for those suffering is ‘the desire to make ourselves known’.

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Sometime late morning it begins, a root of something that only as it grows do you recognise as pain. You have had coffee, as you do every morning, and now you feel the kind of heaviness that sends you to lie down. At home, the friend who is staying with you, whom you half invited and who may have misinterpreted your keenness for company, notes your early return and approves of your plan to retreat. For both of you it has been a year frantic with change and learning and emotion, and even if it is likely indulgent – so what, you’ve earned the right to call a morning off the books and instead take a heat pack and wish it were night all over again. She even microwaves the heat pack for you. You take it to bed where you think you will read or watch television or luxuriate in some way.

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Catherine Cho’s Inferno is the first ‘motherhood memoir’ I have read since reading Maria Tumarkin’s essay ‘Against Motherhood Memoirs’ in Dangerous Ideas About Mothers (2018). The topic of motherhood has been ‘overly melded’ to memoiristic writing, Tumarkin argues; it feels ‘too much like a foregone conclusion’.

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Any definition of what constitutes ‘outsider art’, or art brut, is elusive. The boundaries of this ‘category’ are notoriously porous. There is no manifesto, no consistent medium, nor is it especially tied to any single period in time. However, it can be argued that outsider art is often regarded as art created by those on the margins of society, such as people in psychiatric hospitals, in prison, or the disabled. Outsider artists are also usually self-taught. For several decades, Anthony Mannix has been at the forefront of Australian outsider art, his particular qualification for the label being serious mental illness (though the term ‘illness’, as The Toy of the Spirit implores, is problematic). Mannix was diagnosed with schizophrenia in the mid-1980s, and spent periods as a patient in psychiatric hospitals over the next decade. Now based in the Blue Mountains, he has been free of schizophrenic episodes for many years.

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Madness ‘haunts all of our imaginations’, writes Andrew Scull in Psychiatry and Its Discontents, but it is more than a nightmare. Each year, one in five Australians will experience mental illness, according to the Black Dog Institute, and the World Health Organization warns that one in four globally will experience a mental or neurological disorder during their lifetime. The essays gathered here, however, raise grave doubts about the psychiatric knowledge and practice upon which these epidemiologies are based.

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I read this book about a young woman falling into the dislocating world of a puzzling mental illness at a time when the global pandemic was disrupting many people’s equilibrium. I started to wonder: might living through this time of enhanced anxiety encourage empathy towards people who experience extreme anxiety in non-pandemic times? If those living in the ‘kingdom of the well’ (as Susan Sontag puts it) now start to recognise the contingent, temporary, and often accidental nature of well-being, could that trigger a deeper understanding of those who always live with chronic illness or disability?

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Hearing Maud begins and ends with the notion that the narrator’s life has been defined by a pharmakon, an ancient Greek term denoting something that is both poison and cure. This subtle and more complex version of the ‘gift or loss’ dilemma common in disability memoirs avoids oppositional thinking and embraces instead paradox and nuance ...

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