The Orris: A Cultural Journal

Visions and Nightmares: Art and Mental Illness

“And it is easy to slip into a parallel universe. There are so many of them: worlds of the insane, the criminal, the crippled, the dying, perhaps of the dead as well. These worlds exist alongside this world and resemble it, but are not in it”  – Susanna Kaysen, Girl, Interrupted (1993)

I hope to take you on a strange little trip. Be careful not to slip in.

How do we view the mentally ill?  Strange, sad, a little off? Fantastic, bizarre, visionary?  And, where do these impressions come from?  Obscured in secret, stigma and shame, the history of mental illness in society is a troubled one. Up until the 19thcentury, the mentally ill were seen as possessed and in sin, often locked away in asylums.

William Blake's Nebuchadnezzar (1795)

With the rise of  the modern sciences, new understandings of the mind emerged with the work of Freudian psychology and advancements in biomedicine.  Psychotherapy, neuroscience, and institutional reformation have improved our understanding and treatment of mental illness. Today, the cultural acceptance of mental illness seems at an all-time high [1]. Friends and co-workers casually mention seeing their therapists. Advertisements for anti-depressants air during prime-time blocks.  Many diagnoses of mental illness, like anxiety, depression, and borderline personality disorder, are no longer attached with devastating social stigmas, but are seen as quite common. What was once seen as strange is now becoming normal. If we consider the ever-changing status of mental illness, it seems at root we are searching for the ever elusive definition of ‘normal.’

Looking around us, we can see how ‘normal’ is socially defined. We each base our notion of normal on an expected range of human experiences. We learn what is socially acceptable from our immediate social groups and base our understanding of normal behavior on that community’s views.  To hear someone talk about their depressed mood is not strange. To feel anxious seems just another part of life.  Our views of acceptable feelings and behavior have changed over time.  Due to the influence of the medical community and advocacy groups, our society has gradually redefined our notion of mental illness. Changing attitudes largely stem from our circulating cultural images and ideas. Considering representations of the mentally ill, we see a sweeping body of literature, arts, and cinema that shows readers and viewers what it is like to live with a mental disorder.  From the crazed Hamlet to the suicides of Virginia Woolf to today’s celebrity breakdowns, these cultural images have impacted our shared understanding of mental illness.  Watching John Nash’s spiral in A Beautiful Mind, we glimpse the illuminating, yet chaotic, ways a brilliant mind can work. With Plath, we climb into The Bell Jar, where “blank and stopped as a dead baby, the world itself is the bad dream.”  Seeing the world through the eyes of a schizophrenic, living with autism, coping with the chaos of a personality disorder, these experiences are opened up to us through artistic depictions of mental illness.

Though works like Kaysen’s Girl Interrupted, William Blake’s haunting Nebuchadnezzar, and Fitzgerald’s Tender is the Night differ in medium and approach, they share a common effect. They bring us to worlds we could not visit otherwise. We can travel into their Wonderlands, if we dare.

*           *         *

“I was having a problem with patterns. Oriental rugs, tile floors, printed curtains, things like that. Supermarkets were especially bad, because of the long, hypnotic checkerboard aisles. When I looked at these things, I saw other things within them. That sounds as though I was hallucinating, and I wasn’t. I knew I was looking at a floor or a curtain. But all patterns seemed to contain potential representations, which in a dizzying array would flicker briefly to life. That could be…a forest, a flock of birds, my second-grade picture. Well, it wasn’t –it was a rug, or whatever it was, but my glimpses of the other things it might be were exhausting. Reality was getting too dense”    – Susanna Kaysen, Girl, Interrupted (1993)

The affinity I feel with these words frightens me. I want to distance myself from the page, this book in hand, whose words call out to me. Stripping my cover.  Part of me is terrified, I don’t want these words.  These ramblings of a madwoman.  But, another part of me is reassured, comforted by recognition of another’s feeling. I share these words, the feelings and the state they evoke. I feel myself in them. What once felt so private, hidden away in the remote reservoirs of my mind, is before me, communicated publicly by someone else.

There’s a quiet little fear here as I type out these words. Please excuse the personal I, but this article requires a bit of confession.  It’s a risk I take because I’m grateful for the bravery of others before me. I’m terrified by mental illness.  Perhaps it’s an occupational hazard as a writer. Have I dwelt too long in the abstractions of reality? Too much time in the poetic visions and nightmares of fellow artists?  As in Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s haunting novella The Yellow Wallpaper,  perhaps “my imaginative power and habit of story-making, a nervous weakness like mine is sure to lead to all manner of excited fancies, and that I ought to use my will and good sense to check the tendency.” Most days, I feel like a healthy functioning individual. But, like many others, sometimes I worry about the places my mind goes.

My fears also somewhat stem in a genetic reality. My family lineage of mental illness ranges from the witnessed toil of depression and addiction to rumors of schizophrenia in distant relatives.  Though I know this does not mean certain doom for me, there is a shadowy fear there, the fear that my working mind will dissolve and reality could slip away.  I confess these things because that I trust that others feel this as well. Many of us have seen it already in lost friends, aging loved ones, through rumors about those who fell off the edge.   Like  in Ingmar Bergman’s Through a Glass Darkly, “I’m horrified by my curiosity” of mental illness, “by my urge to record its course.”  But, I find comfort in stories of mental illness, both as a relief of shared experience, and as a reminder of my sanity.

These stories chart out the mental spectrum and reveal to me my place along it.  The following is a selection of works that have shaped my sense of mental health. Read their words and hear their tales. And ask yourself, where are you along the spectrum?

Mental Illness in Literature:

The Yellow Wallpaper (1899) – Charlotte Perkins Gilman

“This wall-paper has a kind of sub-pattern in a different shade, a particularly irritating one, for you can only see it in certain lights, and not clearly then. But in the places where it isn’t faded and where the sun is just so—I can see a strange, provoking, formless sort of figure, that seems to skulk about behind that silly and conspicuous front design.” (For Full Story)

The Sound and the Fury (1929) – William Faulkner

“Versh set me down and we went into Mother’s room. There was a fire. It was rising and falling on the walls. There was another fire in the mirror. I could smell the sickness. It was on a cloth folded on Mother’s head. Her hair was on the pillow. The fire didn’t reach it, but it shone on her hand, where her rings were jumping.”

“Howl” (1956) – Allen Ginsberg

“who were expelled from the academies for crazy & publishing obscene odes on the windows of the skull,”

“who threw potato salad at CCNY lecturers on Dadaism and subsequently presented themselves on the granite steps of the madhouse with shaven heads and harlequin speech of suicide, demanding instantaneous lobotomy”

Insulin Shock Therapy

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1962) – Ken Kesey

“Please understand: We do not impose certain rules and restrictions on you without a great deal of thought about their therapeutic value. A good many of you are in here because you could not adjust to the rules of society in the Outside World, because you refused to face up to them, because you tried to circumvent them and avoid them. At some time-perhaps in your childhood-you may have been allowed to get away with flouting the rules of society. When you broke a rule you knew it. You wanted to be dealt with, needed it, but the punishment did not come. That foolish lenience on the part of your parents may have been the germ that grew into your present illness. I tell you this hoping that you will understand that it is entirely for your own good that we enforce discipline and order.”

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) – Director Milos Forman



Through a Glass Darkly (1961) – Director Ingmar Bergman




The Bell Jar (1963) – Sylvia Plath

“Words, dimly familiar but twisted all awry, like faces in a funhouse mirror, fled past, leaving no impression on the glassy surface of my brain…The letters grew barbs and rams’ horns. I watched them separate, each from the other, and jiggle up and down in a silly way. Then they associated themselves in fantastic, untranslatable shapes, like Arabic or Chinese.”

Woman on the Edge of Time (1976) – Marge Piercy

“All those experts lined up against her in a jury dressed in medical white and judicial black—social workers, caseworkers, child guidance counselors, psychiatrists, doctors, nurses, clinical psychologists, probation officers—all those cool knowing faces had caught her and bound her in their nets of jargon hung all with tiny barbed hooks that stuck in her flesh and leaked a slow weakening poison. She was marked with the bleeding stigmata of shame.”

Girl, Interrupted (1993) – Susanna Kaysen

“Recovered. Had my personality crossed over that border, whatever and wherever it was, to resume life within the confines of normal?  Had I stopped arguing with my personality and learned to straddle the line between sane and insane?”



Girl, Interrupted (1999) – Director James Mangold



*                 *                 *

“Reality burst open and I tumbled out. It’s like a dream. Anything can happen.”

– Minus from Through A Glass Darkly

These stories, both autobiography and fiction, help readers experience a reality that’s not our own. We experience the visions, nightmares, fears and dreams of others as we read and inhabit their lives. Storytelling is a powerful activity that can enrich and change the way we perceive others.  While reading a story, we recognize our shared experience with the characters. It does not mean we will always share the same perspective on the world around us.  But, hearing their voices, experiencing their stories helps us see and imagine what it might be like to have a mental disorder.  And that experience, emotionally felt as we read, helps us understand what was once so foreign and strange.

These works help us understand and empathize with others. As attitudes toward mental illness have loosened over the last century, it has become easier for writers to tell these stories.  Today, memoirs about mental disorders from PSTD, addiction, to multiple personalities are best sellers.  For the writers and artists behind these works, sharing their stories is an act of confession. It is also a moment of self-recognition. These works serve as sites for artists to explore the depths of their imagination, to capture and share their personal sense of reality.  But, when do the artist’s poetic dreams become nightmares? When do we decide to stop, to turn around instead of travelling further into the void? My questions are many. My answers are few. I lack the words, like in Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time, for our “vocabulary is remarkably weak in words for mental states, mental abilities, and mental acts.” But, there’s one thing I trust, that these worlds, literary and cinematic, show us another sense of reality that we very much need.

These stories can feel affirming for those who experience mental illness. We can see our own “nervous weaknesses,” visions, and fears written out before us. And, importantly, it teaches us to how normal is defined by our hospitals, schools, and jails. These works show us how behavior is policed, for both our benefit and our harm. They warn us against the over-medication of our minds, a looming storm cloud our generation faces very seriously today. They also show us possible new paths, representing visions of  new therapies, communities, and lifestyles.

With their words, mental illness begins to no longer seem so strange; it can even begin to feel familiar.  These stories can sometimes make me begin to feel a bit mad myself. My sense of reality begins to blur and swirl as once fixed boundaries erase and the categories won’t stay in place.  As Kaysen writes, “Reality was getting too dense.”  But, there’s something to that density. Found only in the best art, it is the challenge to change your mind, to alter your sense of reality and expand your worldview.  These are powerful acts fighting for the freedom of mind. —Lana Cook



[1] While conditions have improved, it’s important to note that for those diagnosed with a mental illness, stigma and shame are real parts of their lives.  The public acceptance also falls on the more ‘usual’ disorders like addiction, anxiety, depression, and OCD, whereas more extreme cases of abnormal human behavior, like schizophrenia, remains highly stigmatized by many.


Gilman, Charlotte Perkins. The Yellow Wallpaper. CUNI Library. n.d. Web. 3 Oct. 2011.

Faulkner, William. The Sound and the Fury. New York: Norton Critical Edition, 1994. Print.

Ginsberg, Allen. Howl and Other Poems. San Francisco : City Lights Books, 1959. Print.

Girl, Interrupted (1999). Dir. James Mangold. Sony Pictures Home Entertainment, 2004. Film.

Kaysen, Susanna. Girl, Interrupted. New York: Vintage Books, 1994.  Print.

Kesey, Ken. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. New York : Penguin Books, 1999. Print.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975). Dir. Milos Forman. Warner Home Video, 1997. Film.

Piercy, Marge. Woman on the Edge of Time. New York: Fawcett Crest, 1976. Print.

Plath, Sylvia.  The Bell Jar. New York: Bantam Books, 1971. Print.

Through a Glass Darkly (1961). Dir. Ingmar Bergman. Criterion Collection, 1993. Film.

All images are Public Domain.


2 comments on “Visions and Nightmares: Art and Mental Illness

  1. Laura Louise Plummer
    October 26, 2011

    I worked in the mental health field for four years, two as a direct advocate at a domestic abuse shelter, and two as an in-home case manager for at-risk youths. Many, if not the majority, of the clients I served were dealing with one or more mental illnesses. I never took an undergraduate course in psychology, yet I have read more textbooks on modern psychology than the average psych grad, and more importantly, I have gleaned the majority of my knowledge on psychology from working directly with the mentally ill in different clinical settings. The plight of the mentally ill in this country is appalling. Mental illness carries a stigma that physical illness (cancer, diabetes, heart disease) simply doesn’t. Which results not only in fewer people seeking help for mental illnesses, but fewer dollars being pumped into mental health research, prevention and treatment. “If we consider the ever-changing status of mental illness, it seems at root we are searching for the ever elusive definition of ‘normal.’” This reminds me of a quote I came across recently while reading: “What passes for sanity is an agreed-on form of insanity, which is an attempt to make life work out by legislating ideals and imposing values in our minds and selling them to other minds. It is normal to be insane. Being sane is abnormal. Abnormal, sane, honest people are less worried and feel more free than normal people. They are, however, less secure” (“Radical Honesty”, 99.)

    • Lana Cook
      November 1, 2011

      Absolutely, Laura. So much more attention and resources need to go toward mental illness, not necessarily in ‘curing,’ but in understanding and helping individuals cope and prosper. I’ll check out that article you mentioned, that’s a fascinating quote.

Comments are closed.


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