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Schizophrenia as Plot Device: Inherently Stigmatizing?

In Trespassing (2018) by Brandi Reeds, a woman with a family history of schizophrenia discovers her husband missing under mysterious circumstances.  As the story unfolds, she finds it harder and harder to differentiate between an unbelievable reality and possible psychotic delusions.

With the stress of failed fertility treatments and the continuing grief over a miscarriage building, Veronica Cavanaugh begins struggling with the demands of everyday life and caring for her preschool daughter Elizabella.  So when her pilot husband Micah vanishes and the company where he allegedly worked has no knowledge of him, she nearly buckles under the strain.  And when mysterious sightings of Micah are reported by Elizabella by way of her imaginary friend Nini, Veronica feels increasingly confused.  She no longer knows what is real and what is not, and she is unsure of allies to whom she can turn.   Her mother’s diagnosed schizophrenia becomes a focus for her as she questions her own reality testing.  Veronica worries:

“Mama tried to make me see things from her point of view, but I never budged from reality.  The state clinics declared me sane, even though she told the authorities I wasn’t right.  I always thought she was simply good at convincing them of her sanity, but what if it’s the other way around?”

In addition to her fears about her mental health, Veronica harbors anxiety about whether the police are also questioning her sanity, or her truthfulness.  She remembers how she discovered her mother in the middle of a suicide attempt and rushed to save her.  When emergency services arrived to find her cradling her near-dead mother in blankets, they praised her for her quick rescue efforts.  Her mother had a different view, though:

“But she hated me for it.  The voices hated me.  They hated the doctors who prescribed the medicine to silence them.  They knew how to play the game.  Stay quiet, stay hidden until the doctors let her go home.”


“I’d told them about the voices, but Mama denied it.  The doctors turned their microscopes on me after that.  Mama lied for those voices.”

There is an undeniable malevolence alongside the psychotic process as the mother creates a convincing story of her daughter’s mental illness.  The suicide attempt transforms into a homicidal one in the mother’s retelling, leaving Veronica to defend herself against criminal accusations.  Though never explicitly stated, these scenes have some of the flavor of the stereotypical (and stigmatizing) “schizophrenic genius,” consumed with elaborate and evil plans.  Veronica’s mother not only blames her self-injury on her daughter, she also actively acts out violently against the girl.  She is able to convince mental health professionals that she is not having symptoms, apparently by simply denying her hallucinations.  There is no indication of any disorganized speech or behavior that would alert doctors to her deception; her psychotic symptoms are neatly pigeonholed as command hallucinations and her efforts to obey.

As it turns out, Veronica is not actually experiencing psychosis.  Her husband was involved in a shadowy double life with many facets, and eventually his criminal associations caught up with him with explosive consequences.

While this book’s discussion of the genetic heritability of schizophrenia may contribute to public understanding of the disorder, other aspects of the story may contribute to negative stereotypes of both mental illness sufferers and mental health professionals.


Schizophrenia as Plot Device: Inherently Stigmatizing?

Kathryn Lawson

Kathryn Lawson, PhD is a clinical psychologist in Peachtree City, Georgia, specializing in the treatment of trauma/PTSD, grief, anxiety and depression among older adolescents and adults. Before transitioning to private practice, she worked for the Bureau of Prisons for 10 years. During that time, she also worked as an adjunct faculty member at a small college, teaching diverse groups of nontraditional students. Her private practice, teaching, and government service have all been guided by a commitment to reaching underserved populations. Dr. Lawson is passionate about issues of stigma and inclusion and how these impact individuals affected by mental illness.

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APA Reference
Lawson, K. (2018). Schizophrenia as Plot Device: Inherently Stigmatizing?. Psych Central. Retrieved on March 19, 2019, from


Last updated: 8 Apr 2018
Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 8 Apr 2018
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