Thursday, June 13, 2013

Just add water, I'm disappointed

By Jay Stringer

I saw the last episode of THE FALL this week. The question about the treatment of women is something I've touched on before, and no doubt is an issue I'll talk about again. The finale left me with a different question.

I've been talking to people about mental health a lot this week. I won't go into details, because those people's stories are not mine to tell. Suffice to say I've had conversations with people who you could describe as being engaging and functional people, whilst struggling with serious personal health issues. People who are only ever one bad day away from not coming back.

Stephen Fry recently spoke out about an attempt to end his own life. He speaks the bleak truth that for many, it's not an issue of choice and not a matter of reason. To lift a quote from this Guardian piece, Fry said;

"There is no 'why,' It's not the right question. There's no reason. If there were a reason for it, you could reason someone out of it, and you could tell them why they shouldn't take their own life."
That's bleak, and honest, and important.

And we're not just talking about suicide attempts here.  I believe I'm right in saying that 1 in 3 of us -the wider 'us', the population- suffers from mental health conditions, either long term or short term. We're talking about depression, about bi-polar disorder, about anxiety, about stress. We're talking about schizophrenia. We're talking about everyone. We're talking about people who get up, get dressed and go to work, all the while coping with pain, despair and hopelessness that they work hard to keep from the rest of us. Some people want to go through it alone, some people are desperate for help.

In watching THE FALL I thought again of my disdain for serial killer fiction. A kind of fetish of the impossible. I can't speak to the quality of HANNIBAL, and I know it's been getting strong reviews, but the subject matter stopped me from developing any interest.

We read and write about mental health issues in very narrow terms in our field. It's a gimmick. An excuse. We want some death and some interesting mayhem, and a way to get there is with these impossible magical characters that we create, and then we throw in a suggestion of childhood trauma as if that is "paying the taxes" of examining cause and effect.

We like sociopaths as long as they serve plots, we like addicts as short-hand for failure, and people with extreme temper problems are good for sudden bursts of action. We like the moody protagonist with a fractured psyche. We like the killer who can live double lives. We like the self-loathing copper who is trying hard to self destruct.

But do we ever put these simple toys to one side to have a serious conversation about mental health? It would seem to me that crime fiction is the place to do it. We write about poverty and despair. We write about loss, we write about violence and identity.

In writing about mental health in the form of the "crazy," and in the form of the magical plot devices, we tell ourselves we're pushing boundaries. We say we're holding up a mirror, and we're telling uncomfortable truths. I wonder if crime fiction is ignoring a larger uncomfortable truth. That we are ignoring the real stories, the real people.

The mean streets we pretend to walk down are ones filled with people who are struggling to hold on, day to day. Every third person, everyone who manages to be functional while still suffering. People whose stories deserve to be told and people who maybe need to occasionally be told they're not alone.

Do we do enough?


pattinase (abbott) said...

I watched the first episode and thought haven't I seen this before--like on a million other shows. The new season of THE KILLING, same thing. Certainly there can be multi-episoded shows about crimes other than this. How about one about a gang. Or a drug carter. Or one about any other crime at all. This is just too easy to write.

Dana King said...

I nevr thought much about this, probably because I rarely use mental illness in my stories and don;t generally read stories where it is a key element. It's too often used as a cheat, either to drum up motive without working to do so, or to create a Hannibal Lector/Keyser Soze super villain to make it easy to continuously "raise the stakes." (My least favorite term in writing, as it too often lead authors to one raise too many for believably.)

Having said that, you're right: if mental illness is to be used in a story, it should be treated authentically and seriously. Not only in the interests of fairness, but it will provide layers of depth to the story.

A similar thing happens with victims. Too often they're either killed and disposed of--it's a mystery, someone has to die, he drew the short straw--or the author sends up a victim from Central Casting.

John McFetridge said...

There's a cop show in Canada about a (fictional) department called, "Psych crimes," in which every episode is supposed to be about that point in which cops come in contact with mental illness.

I say, "supposed to be," because in truth every episode is full of cliche and convenience - every "schizophrenic" is miraculously talked-down at the moment of crisis, every seemingly unconnected event somehow becomes ligical and understandable. 'Cause you know, they need to wrap it up in an hour, the cops need to be heroes and it's just entertainment afterall.

I guess it's commendable that someone is trying this kind of show, but often I feel they are actually doing more damage than good.

It's very difficult to deal with the consequences of mental illness in a structured genre like crime fiction.

Dana King said...

John raises a good point. (As usual.) Crime fiction needs to make some sense, and have some kind of resolution. Mental illness does not, and we may do a disservice by imposing either. Which might be a good reason t stay away from it right there, unless the perfect opportunity presents itself.

Jay Stringer said...

I don;t really think crime fiction HAS to make sense and have resolutions.

The narrative needs a closing point, but emotionally we don't need to be any different to real life. We can leave things hanging. We can leave open ended questions.

Jay Stringer said...
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