What is crazy? In practice, madness is defined functionally rather than with reference to some absolute cognitive distinction. You can be as unhappy as you like if you can still make rent. You can be convinced that every streetlight is an angel as long as you walk past them and to your own door. If you have a lot of money, you can go on being crazy without consequence for longer than if you have only a little. Despite all these gradations, it is not as if there are two kinds of things, really real things and merely socially constructed things: The conditions of reality are socially determined, and crazy is one of the names for a life that falls outside value.
Because of the many years I lived by proxy with schizophrenia, I—stubbornly, untheoretically—dislike its use as an image, even when well meaning. The idea of schizophrenia as an extreme materialization of the pain of our present social form, and therefore as perhaps its overcoming, is hard to accept because it’s also the name for a certain kind of real experience. And yet of course I also read my long encounter with it, via the person I am here calling B, as a judgment on the world, and on me.
We had to act a certain way in the hospitals, to show the doctors that B was not trash. I would put on the smooth neutral suit of sanity, which is smiling politely, listening carefully, and in all ways acting as bourgeois as possible. Those times when my mother forgot her armor, when she begged and cried, I saw how the doctors looked at her, as if she were the really crazy one.
Helen Ries was in her forties when her father died in 2011, and then her mother in 2014, a turn of events that left her as the main caregiver for...