Twenty-seven years old and in her first semester at Yale Law School, Elyn Saks had days when, she writes,
I feared that my brain was actually heating up and might explode. I visualized brain matter flying all over the room, spattering the walls. Whenever I sat at a desk and tried to read, I caught myself putting my hands up to either side of my head, trying to hold it all in.
She was especially concerned, should this happen, about who might get hurt. “The innocent bystander problem,” she notes (italics in original).
The fear did not go away. A few weeks into the semester, after gibbering away on the roof of the law school—believing both that people are out to kill her and that she has killed others (“Don’t try to fuck with me, Richard,” she tells a friend, “I’ve killed better men than you.”)—she is taken to Yale–New Haven Hospital where she surrenders her telephone-wire belt and a roof nail, after which, she writes, “it was all over.”
Within seconds, The Doctor and his whole team of goons swooped down, grabbed me, lifted me out of the chair, and slammed me down on a nearby bed with such force that I saw stars. Then they bound both my legs and arms to the metal bed, with thick leather straps.
While in restraints, Elyn is force-fed an antipsychotic drug—the first she has ever had. Transferred by ambulance to Yale Psychiatric Institute, she asks that a blanket be put over her face so nobody can see her. “Maybe,” she thinks, “this is what it feels like to be dead” (italics in original).
There is a long tradition, published and unpublished, of first-person accounts of madness—from John Perceval, Daniel Paul Schreber, and Vaslav Nijinsky to William Styron, Kay Redfield Jamison, and Andrew Solomon—but of those I’m familiar with, Elyn Saks’s The Center Cannot Hold is the most remarkable of all. I know of no other account that, by its recall of each moment of short- and long-term crises, allows us to begin to experience what being in this condition must be like and feel like to the person suffering it.
“As frightened as I was,” she writes,
I was equally angry, and frantic to find a way to show defiance. So I inhaled as deeply as I could, and started belting out some beloved Beethoven. Not, for obvious reasons, “Ode to Joy,” but rather Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. BABABA BA! BABABA BA!…
For hours, I sang it and shouted it and hollered it with all the power remaining inside me. I fought off the beings who were attacking me, I yanked against the restraints, and I sang my heart out. Every once in a while, a nurse came by with another little demitasse of antipsychotic liquid. I swallowed it passively, then fought to swim above the fog it created. BABABA BA!
Elyn is transferred to Yale’s Psychiatric Evaluation Unit, where she jabbers away at her…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.