The Center Cannot Hold

The Center Cannot Hold: My Journey Through Madness by Elyn R. Saks 9781401301385

publication date: 2007
pages: 346
ISBN: 978-1-4013-0138-5

Elyn Saks is a very intelligent, driven woman. She graduated from Oxford in England and Yale Law School in Connecticut. She is also a tenured legal professor at USC and a psychoanalyst. She has also championed for the rights of those declared incompetent or incapacitated personally and by writing books on the subject and appearing on television. But perhaps most impressively, she accomplished all this while living with the mental illness of schizophrenia.

In her autobiography, The Center Cannot Hold, Saks details her struggle with her mental illness. Starting with her night terrors as a young child, her first experience with delusional thoughts and voices as a teenager, her hospitalization while at Oxford in England, her much more confining and destructive hospitalization while at Yale in America, and, finally, her diagnosis.

Throughout all this, Saks gives very thorough descriptions of what was happening inside her head. For example, her description of her first experience with delusional thoughts:

I began to realize that the houses I was passing were sending message to me: Look closely. You are special. You are especially bad. Look closely and ye shall find. There are many things you must see. See. See.

I didn’t hear these words as literal sounds, as though the houses were talking and I were hearing them; instead, the words just came into my head – they were ideas I was having. Yet I instinctively knew they were not my ideas. They belonged to the houses, and the houses had put them in my head.

The book also contains several thought-provoking passages on questions concerning identity, body, and mind. For example:

Intelligence, combined with discipline, could overcome any challenge. And mostly, that belief had served me well. The problem was, it assumed that the intelligence at hand was fully functional, fully capable – but I’d been told by experts that my brain had serious problems. Was my brain the same thing as my mind? Could I hang onto the one while conceding that there was a big flaw in the other?

Clearly, Saks is a smart, reflective, admirable woman; but, she is not necessarily an author. The book is sometimes dry and boring and is riddled with pacing issues. She would focus on one moment or experience for paragraphs and then skip over entire parts of her life. However, her willingness to delve into the uncommon and often bleak aspects of her mind and illness made the book generally engaging.

The illness of schizophrenia is still often met with fear and misunderstanding. Therefore, this book is important and meaningful simply as an example of a successful product of a schizophrenic mind. Saks adds further meaning by conveying her illness, and her life, with such honesty and contemplation.

4/6: worth reading

Other reviews of The Center Cannot Hold:

SFGate
Psy Blog
Lit And Life

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