Schizophrenia affects nearly one per cent of the population – about 24 million people worldwide – and, in spite of huge medical advances over the past century, remains one of the most misunderstood and stigmatized diagnoses. Former Maclean’s staffer Susan Doherty’s new work of non-fiction aims to shine a light on what it’s like to live with this and other serious psychiatric disorders; its clear from the outset that this is a book with good intentions. Unfortunately, it’s aim is often askew – in many instances Doherty does more to shore up existing stereotypes about mental illness than counter them.
The Ghost Garden mainly chronicles the story of Caroline, a woman now in her 60s who has experienced bouts of psychosis for almost the entirety of her adult life. The narrative begins with a brutal act of violence Caroline committed nearly 20 years ago; the rest of the book chronicles her life from her privileged suburban childhood to the present, trying to unsnarl the thread of how she got from there to here. Interleaved with chapters about Caroline are the stories of 21 other people living with mental illness, most of whom Doherty met while volunteering at the Douglas Institute, a psychiatric hospital in Montreal.
Doherty hopes to humanize people who have long been marginalized within both western society and the western medical system, but her approach often undercuts this ideal. Her engaging and well-paced prose describes intimate and often graphic details about her subjects: what they smell like (bad, mostly), their lack of personal hygiene, their sexual dysfunction. Many stories are filtered through the lens of a caregiver; when Doherty quotes people with schizophrenia directly, their thoughts are either presented as being out of touch with reality or else preternaturally wise and savant-like.
Nearly every story told is some kind of tragedy. Even the ones meant to be “hopeful” are filled with hurt and loss, as if it would be impossible to have a serious mental illness and also find any kind of real fulfillment. There is a difference between pointing out the gaps in the mental health care system and indulging in the idea that mental illness is some kind of prison sentence that makes a life not worth living.
Perhaps most troublingly, even as Doherty centres herself as the saviour and mouthpiece of her book’s subjects, she seems to be very unfamiliar with contemporary discussions about mental health and trans issues (among other things). The word “crazy” – widely considered to be a slur within the disability community – is used throughout. (There’s even a chapter called “How Do You Keep Loving a Crazy Person?”) Another chapter contains the “twist” that its subject had gender-affirmation surgery and immediately regretted it. While in a different context this might not have been problematic, when presented as the sole trans narrative in the book, it seems to support common transphobic talking points: that being trans is a mental illness, that trans people are able to casually access surgery, and that trans women are really just men in dresses.
The book concludes with a paragraph about rats, stress, and maternal care. Doherty uses the fact that rats well cared for as pups end up being healthier as adults, which makes her feel hopeful that maternal care can “reverse” “genetically mandated patterns” that might cause schizophrenia. Of course, the flip side of that idea is the implication that inadequate mothering is responsible for mental illness, which is a very retrograde belief indeed.
The Ghost Garden describes itself as “groundbreaking,” but it’s hard to see what new ground is being broken here. There are some worthwhile passages – in particular, there’s an interesting discussion in the last chapter about medication and non-compliance – but they are few and far between. In a literary landscape where many people living with mental illness write clearly and compellingly about their experiences, it seems frankly ridiculous to rely on someone who is only passing along second- or third-hand information.