Betsy  Seifter, Ph.D.

Betsy Seifter Ph.D.

Schizophrenia Diary

A New Definition of Crazy

A wonderful book expresses through text and image what "crazy" is, and means.

Posted Apr 04, 2016

Let me recommend a book, entitled Crazy: a creative and personal look at mental illness, by Michael Hanna, Tami Leino Hanna, and All the Crazy Artists of Adams Place.  150 adults with mental illness contributed words and pictures, and the book was a winner of the Colorado Book Award.   (You can find it at www.adamsplacecrazy.org)

I’ve read a lot of books on mental illness, everything from Eric Kandel’s The Principles of Neuroscience to Schizophrenia for Dummies to John Wray’s novel Lowboy, but I’ve never read anything quite like this.  Crazy is a completely original, and beautiful, contribution to the literature.  For one thing, it’s visually stunning, an explosion of color and image with a scrapbook feel that gives you the authentic experience of a range of emotional disorders, everything from bipolar disorder to OCD to suicidality, eating disorders, schizophrenia, ADHD, PTSD.  The overriding aesthetic is one of juxtaposition: montage, collage, printed text, drawings, paintings, scribbles, lists, torn pages, scraps, poems, diary entries, essays, stories—as well as “the facts’ of these illnesses, insofar as the facts are known.  And out of this array comes art.  Not “crazy” art, but art.  And where, in fact, does one draw the line?  The paradox of these illnesses is that while they are classed as “disorders” leading to significant dysfunction, they also are very like a gift.  Seeing the world from another place of heightened perception, exquisite sensitivity, and pain, these artists offer profound insights—precisely because they see and experience things slantwise, from a tilted angle.

There is too much here to recount anything like the whole of the book.  I’ve only dipped in, myself; an approach I would recommend.  You can look into sections of particular interest, or pick out a page that catches your eye.  To name a few things I stumbled across:

Michael Hanna’s explanation of the use of “Crazy” as a move to take “crazy” back—refuse its connotations of stigma and dismissal and celebrate it.  “I wanted a word that doesn’t feel like it belongs in a classroom, or in a doctor’s office, or in one of those prescription drug ads on tv…”  (p. 10)  He makes the case that “crazy” is a word like “love,” a central thread in human life with many meanings.  I also liked his analysis of a manic smiley face, beginning with the notion of “cute” but noticing that the humor and bright energy is tinged with destructive elements: a raging fire, a spinning sawblade (p. 65). Tami Leino Hanna’s moving reflection on the lifelong reverberation of her little brother’s death at age two (p. 208-9) and her playful probing commentary on the terrific poem by S. Schmeling, “Scrambled Eggs Brain” (pp. 138-90. Other bits:  “I Have Traveled” by A.K.F. with its image of a train gathering speed and smashing to pieces (pp. 112-113), a diary entry, “Lost in a world that is not my own” (p. 109), the poem by Matthew Skyler Verstraete, “Silent night you pass me by…” (pp. 96-7) and his essay about his sister’s death from an overdose (pp. 26-7).

Much of the visual art has a mesmerizing cryptic quality, with puns, and enigmatic icons and numbers—half expression and half secret code.  It’s as though the art looks in two directions, private release (the therapeutic notion) and also outward to the world, a communication through aesthetic means.  

I’ve thought for a long time that the line between “crazy” and “gifted” is very fine: the quick ability to see patterns and read meanings everywhere IS the gift.  And the stunning insights of those who suffer from “crazy” is a gift to all of us.   

So I’ll end where I began, with the strongest possible recommendation that everyone read Crazy.  Though the book provides reliable information about the gamut of mental illnesses, it is in essence an answer to the dry symptom lists of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual; it celebrates the mystery of individuality—the inner core that escapes all our categories and touches us deeply, forever.