Often popular fiction characters with mental illness are relegated to novels explicitly focused on that illness. However, there are some fictional projects that feature or even focus on characters with mental illness but do not make that illness the sole plotline. These books follow the expected conventions of their genres and include conflicts unrelated to psychiatric disorder.
When characters in romance novels act as characters in romance novels typically do, when characters in mysteries act as characters in mysteries typically do, and when characters in medical thrillers act as characters in medical thrillers typically do, despite any mental illnesses suffered by these characters, the disorders are rightly confined to being only one part of that character’s total personhood. Character development does not stop with offering the diagnosis, but includes other quirks and strengths and challenges-like real individuals with mental illness. I would argue that this kind of writing is a true indicator of inclusion. Grayson (2014) by Lisa Eugene is a touching example of this sort of inclusiveness and destigmatization.
Tasked with cleaning out a house filled dangerously with junk and filth, Angie Roberts initially heeds the warnings of her employer not to venture upstairs and possibly encounter his unwell father, the man living in the hovel. When she does encounter that man, Grayson, Angie feels an instant attraction that blossoms into a friendship and later to a romantic connection. She enters into the relationship with full knowledge that Grayson suffers from schizophrenia, but this knowledge does not diminish her attachment.
As narrator, Angie says:
“He was simply beautiful. I saw him this way first-as a man. His disorder was just a fraction of who he was.”
“I know he’s an amazing man, with many wonderful qualities who happens to suffer from schizophrenia.”
“Although it infiltrated much of his life, he was so much more than a diagnosis.”
Readers are also shown that Grayson’s business acumen has helped him acquire and maintain significant wealth, which his son Charles is determined to wrest from him by attempting to paint him as incompetent. It is made abundantly clear that Charles does not genuinely view his father as unable to manage his affairs; the former simply wants to continue to finance a profligate and promiscuous lifestyle of which his father does not approve. Charles is further portrayed as jealous of his father, both of his financial successes and of his sexual relationship with Angie (who rejected Charles’s advances). The totality of these reactions to Grayson, Angie’s positive ones and Charles’s negative ones, heighten the author’s emphasis on Grayson as a fully-developed man and not simply “schizophrenic.”
Despite its overall positive tone, the book does not minimize the difficulties of living with schizophrenia. At one point, Grayson becomes noncompliant with the psychotropic medication that he requires in order to keep him functional. He reacts violently to strangers entering his home, a plot that was carefully orchestrated by his scheming son, who told the workmen to arrive a day before their scheduled time. Grayson is psychiatrically hospitalized and remains in the hospital for a period of several weeks. During his disorientation, he is combative and unpredictable, and requires the use of restraints. Angie stays by him throughout his hospitalization and provides loving support. Her love and compassion are portrayed as significant to his regaining control over his symptoms, but the importance of professional intervention and medication are not diminished.
Angie’s own struggles with the situation are not diminished either. After one particularly damaging argument in which she said everything she could to wound Grayson, she reflects:
“It had been wrong to call him names and to issue callous aspersions about his mental illness, but in my anger I’d slipped into endorsing the social stigma I’d always abhorred. That guilt too was flaying me.”
Stigma and exclusion inflict untold pain on mental illness sufferers and their families and loved ones. When genre novels tackle these issues with sensitivity, those efforts reflect a genuine step forward.