20 Books of Summer: The Center Cannot Hold by Elyn R. Saks

My book club announced it was reading Elyn R. Saks’s 2007 memoir The Center Cannot Hold: My Journey Through Madness and I couldn’t have been happier. The book, along with Susannah Cahalan’s Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness, had been on my list to read forever and this was a great excuse to finally read it. In a stroke of good luck I was able borrow a Kindle version through Overdrive and quickly went to work on it. Even without devoting my full attention I made quick work of Saks’s memoir. And like so many backlisted titles I’ve encountered over the years wished I’d read it sooner.

Born to a stable and supporting upper middle class family in Miami Saks, by all indicators and expectations was on a promising trajectory towards college, graduate/law school, professional accomplishment, marriage and motherhood. That is until as a high schooler she began experiencing hallucinations, many of them encouraging her to harm herself and others.

Convinced the hallucinations were the result of a fleeting,  experimentation with recreational drugs (once with pot, the other with peyote) her parents exiled Saks to a lock-down residential care facility in hopes of curing her “addiction.” Ran with the discipline one usually encounters in religious cults and Marine Corp basic training she emerged several years later with an aversion to all drugs, illegal and otherwise and an unhealthy insistence upon personal self-reliance. Unfortunately, as her symptoms worsened during her years away at college and later graduate school it was this instilled mindset that led to Saks mistakenly believing she could handle her debilitative mental illness on her own without any therapy, hospitalization or medication.

Left untreated her illness worsened, leading to several involuntary hospitalizations and rounds of treatment. After years of clinical dead-ends, and in retrospect misdiagnoses, she was finally diagnosed with a form of schizophrenia. This would lead to a longterm regimen of one on one therapy and a series of different anti-psychotic medications.

Despite these seemingly insurmountable challenges (not to mention surviving not one but two bouts of cancer as well as a brain hemorrhage) Saks nonetheless persevered. After graduating from Vanderbilt she earned a graduate degree from Oxford, following it up with a law degree from Yale. Later, as a professor at USC’s law school she went on to publish a number of articles and books and today is not only a best-selling memoirist but also a leading expert on the intersection of law and mental illness.

If you’re on the many who loved Robert Kolker’s Hidden Valley Road: Inside the Mind of an American Family then this book is for you. Saks’s memoir is an intimate look at the mysterious and much stigmatized illness of schizophrenia, a disease whose root causes a mystery to scientists and doctors alike and cure an illusive mystery.

Echoing the Persian poet Rumi’s aphorism that a person who exhibits both positive and negative qualities, strengths and weaknesses is not flawed, but complete Saks concludes her memoir by declaring “[m]y good fortune is not I’ve recovered from mental illness. I have not, nor will I ever. My good fortune lies in having found good life.”

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