My main challenge as a fiction writer is to imagine my way inside people who are not me and states of being that are not mine. For most fiction writers, I think, the self is only one among myriad influences upon which to draw. Our motivation for creating characters arises from different origins — from the people we know, those we have observed, archetypes pocketed from other works of literature (unconsciously, of course), impressions stored in our memories since early childhood, as well as seemingly from nowhere. Whatever combination of these is at hand during the writing of a given story, fiction writers get to become other people as surely as actors do. For me, this process is sometimes thrilling but always humbling.
The character of Elise, who in my latest novel, Radiant Daughter, progresses inexorably into a crippling mental illness, has commanded my appreciation — extracted it, really — more than any other character I've attempted to draw. For all her adult life, she has lived on a different plane from the vast majority of people. Just as often as not, her consciousness has not been her own. It has been co-opted by forces beyond her control: errant brain cells, maverick genes — do we yet really know?
All that the rest of us know is what we observe in the behavior of people afflicted by diseases of the brain, what they describe to us during their lucid periods, and what professionals tell us about these people's mental condition and its possible etiology. Oh, and one other source informs us — the occasional misfires of our own brains, the momentary lapses in our thinking, the short-lived and inexplicable plunges into a sense of profound dread that we, unlike Elise, are able to effectively push away. Who has never questioned their sanity, however glibly ("I must be going crazy")? We know next to nothing about the altered states ushered in by mental illness, but very occasionally we are visited by a sensation or an emotion or a foreboding that tells us there is another way to be, a terrifying and unworldly one. These moments of misalignment-with-reality, even if experienced only in a dream, may provide our only accurate insight into the mind of someone who is mentally ill. There is nothing romantic about what goes on inside that mind. It is not a mind you'd want to occupy.
I live in New York City, where bipolar people in florid manic states and paranoid schizophrenics who are off their meds roam the streets and the subway. This is true of most other major urban areas lacking the resources or will to create a consistent treatment plan for such people — or where the afflicted people refuse treatment. People with mental illness are part of our landscape. Like most of us who function in a reality that is familiar, I give these people a wide swath when they pass. If they lean over to shout in my face, I flinch and my heartbeat accelerates. In the street, I don't try to imagine their narratives because doing so would lead to a burdensome empathy. On the page, describing and giving context to Elise, I could tolerate this empathy. I could extend to her a platform that I would never dare offer the man wearing three coats in August, the one repeating the same line to every passerby, "There's a bullet in that phone."
In Radiant Daughter, Elise Blazek has some innate tools with which to fend off an exceptionally pernicious "case" of bipolar disorder. Chief among these tools is a high degree of self-awareness. But when her disease is at its worst she must draw on those tools as weapons, and the force of her altered state often melts the weapon in her hand. She is taken over. That's how powerful a presence Elise's delusions are, capable of disarming not only her, but the most dear and least defended of the people in her immediate vicinity. This is a phenomenon that can and does happen — mental illness as second-hand smoke, choking those who don't move out of the way, as I do when approached by someone muttering about the devil.
Like all people with a mental illness, Elise Blazek is not simply her disorder. She has a personality and intellect apart from it, a physical appearance, a cultural background, and most of all, a narrative. For her to rend these characteristics away from her bipolar disease, to be able to assert and build on her unique (but grounded) qualities, she does not have merely a problem to solve. She does not face a challenge scaled to be overcome or a puzzle designed to finally come together. She has a Sisyphean task, a climb full of treacherous and genuinely unnavigable patches. To support her climb, she can lean on people who love her, but, to quote Kay Redfield Jamison, "no amount of love can cure madness or unblacken one's dark moods."
I could claim that I inhabited Elise for the time it took to write Radiant Daughter, but it would not be true. I might have tried to conjure the anonymous raging woman on the street, to imbue her with a host of characteristics that define her apart from her illness, but I worked on, applying a steady and prolonged concentration to evoke Elise and her world, something that Elise, during a good deal of her story, would not have been capable of doing. Which is, among other reasons, why fully imagining mental illness is bound to elude anyone who has the audacity to try it.