The best books that tell a story of life with mental illness

Why am I passionate about this?

I’m Mona Simpson, the author of seven novels. I grew up with a mentally ill parent who struggled to support me, her only child, as a single mother. I saw firsthand the toll living in the world cost her. One of my first experiences of adulthood was a sense of relief in discovering that staying above water was manageable, even easy. Walking home from my first real job, seeing all the other people’s backs and legs hurry ahead of me, I liked being one of the many. I wondered if my mother could have ever felt that ease if there had been an alternative.


I wrote...

Commitment

By Mona Simpson,

Book cover of Commitment

What is my book about?

It is a novel about a single mother’s collapse and the fate of her family after she enters a California State hospital in the 1970s; a story of one family trying to navigate the crisis of their lives, a crisis many know firsthand in their own families or in those of their neighbors. After Diane Aziz drives her oldest son, Walter, to college at UC Berkeley, she falls into a deep depression. When she enters a state hospital, her closest friend tries to keep the children safe and their mother’s dreams for them alive. 

A resonant novel about family and duty and the attendant struggles that come when a parent falls ill, Commitment honors the spirit of fragile, imperfect mothers and the under-chronicled significance of friends in determining the lives of our children left on their own.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Joshua Lutz: Hesitating Beauty

Mona Simpson Why did I love this book?

I found myself returning to the resonant images again and again. The book presents pictures of a young man’s mother throughout her life before her mental illness, and with it, and includes some bits of narrative, letters from her and from his father.

These exerpts allowed me to construct the story of a family’s tragedy, the evolution of a beautiful young woman into someone else, someone who was still, nevertheless, painfully loved. One of the typewritten paragraphs begins, “Right after you were born, your mother believed she had fallen in love with someone else.”

I felt the young photographer’s mission to understand and hold his love for his imperfect parents driving the book. It was not put together for me, the reader, but out of a driving necessity. We are nevertheless allowed to witness the young man’s struggle and evolution.

By Joshua Lutz,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Joshua Lutz as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Breaking down the structure of the photograph as truth and the book as narrative, Joshua Lutz's second monograph, HESITATING BEAUTY, it is an intimate portrait unlike other photographic models. Rethinking how photographs and text can function, Lutz blends family archives, interviews and letters with his own photographic practice seamlessly into a precious, fictitious experience of a life and family consumed by mental illness. Instead of showing us what it looks like, HESITATING BEAUTY is able to play with our own conceptions of reality to show us what it feels like.

Joshua Lutz: ""Holding on so tightly to what I believed…


Book cover of The Lives They Left Behind: Suitcases from a State Hospital Attic

Mona Simpson Why did I love this book?

In 1995, in the attic of a decommissioned mental hospital in New York State, a curator of New York State Museum, a local volunteer, a psychiatrist/ documentarian, and a photographer found a trove of suitcases, doctor’s bags, steamer trunks with Chinese motif, housekeys, photographs, earrings, belts, upright ladies Saratoga trunks (“so named because they could hold enough clothes for an entire summer season in the resort town of Saratoga Springs.")

The researchers ventured further into the hospital's now vacant sites, an abandoned bowling alley, and its burial grounds. Finally, they obtained permission to get a few hours with the medical records, which were stored in an abandoned hospital building contaminated with asbestos and lead, requiring them to don protective gear and booties.

Their hope was to bring the forgotten patients who’d spent years in the institution back to life. This book and its intricate details haunted me. There are so many lost stories and lives that were forgotten that nevertheless leave bits of their essence behind for the patient resurrectors.

By Darby Penney, Peter Stastny, Lisa Rinzler (photographer)

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Lives They Left Behind as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

"The Lives They Left Behind is a deeply moving testament to the human side of mental illness, and of the narrow margin which so often separates the sane from the mad. It is a remarkable portrait, too, of the life of a psychiatric asylum--the sort of community in which, for better and for worse, hundreds of thousands of people lived out their lives. Darby Penney and Peter Stastny's careful historical (almost archaeological) and biographical reconstructions give us unique insight into these lives which would otherwise be lost and, indeed, unimaginable to the rest of us." --Oliver Sacks "Fascinating...The haunting thing…


Book cover of Asylum: Inside the Closed World of State Mental Hospitals

Mona Simpson Why did I love this book?

Oliver Sack’s forward to this book, which was first published as The Lost Virtues of the Asylum, stopped me cold when I first read it. It was a revelation and started my mind turning. I read the piece dozens of times and then found the source materials Sacks quoted from and read those books, too.

I came of age during the era of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and it was a long unwinding to begin to consider that an institution, a state institution on the order of a large mental health hospital, could do good. But I’d grown up with a mentally ill parent who struggled to survive and bring me up safely. I saw firsthand the toll our life took on her. I began to tamper with my assumption that she’d been better off in the harrying world.

The photographs by Alexander Payne are haunting. The old abandoned hospitals, which held whole civilizations, cultures, so many dedicated lives and ideals, “repurposed” and forgotten.

By Christopher Payne,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Asylum as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Powerful photographs of the grand exteriors and crumbling interiors of America's abandoned state mental hospitals.

For more than half the nation's history, vast mental hospitals were a prominent feature of the American landscape. From the mid-nineteenth century to the early twentieth, over 250 institutions for the insane were built throughout the United States; by 1948, they housed more than a half million patients. The blueprint for these hospitals was set by Pennsylvania hospital superintendant Thomas Story Kirkbride: a central administration building flanked symmetrically by pavilions and surrounded by lavish grounds with pastoral vistas. Kirkbride and others believed that well-designed buildings…


Book cover of The Center Cannot Hold

Mona Simpson Why did I love this book?

This is the Horatio Alger story for talented young women who develop schizophrenia. Elyn Saks, a law professor at USC, tells a story of descent into a kind of madness that has a truly happy ending. Not the kind of happy ending literary novels offer us, in which contentment is laced with sadness. Elyn conquers her demons like a superhero.

By Elyn R. Saks,

Why should I read it?

4 authors picked The Center Cannot Hold as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it. This book is for kids age 12, 13, 14, and 15.

What is this book about?

Elyn Saks is Professor of Law and Psychiatry at University of Southern California Law School. She's the author of several books. Happily married. And - a schizophrenic. Saks lifts the veil on schizophrenia with her startling and honest account of how she learned to live with this debilitating disease. With a coolly clear, measured tone she talks about her condition, the stigma attached and the deadening effects of medication. Her controlled narrative is disrupted by interjections from the part of her mind she has learned to suppress. Delusions, hallucinations and threatening voices cut into her reality and Saks, in a…


Book cover of The Art of Asylum-Keeping: Thomas Story Kirkbride and the Origins of American Psychiatry

Mona Simpson Why did I love this book?

This is a book in which I have underlines on almost every page. It’s the story of the development of Psychiatry — the whole field — in the United States; in this case, there really is a story. One man, Thomas Kirkbride, the superintendent of the Pennsylvania Hospital for the Insane, largely determined the course of how we first thought about and treated mental illness in America. His vision became the template for the large state institutions erected according to his model.

Steeped in the ideals of the European protocol of “moral treatment,” Kirkbride believed to the end that mental illness could be cured with nature, safe containment, music, art, reading, good food, and a slowed-down, kinder life. 

By Nancy Tomes,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Art of Asylum-Keeping as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The Art of Asylum-Keeping is a social history of medical practice in a private nineteenth-century asylum, the Pennsylvania Hospital for the Insane in Philadelphia. It recreates everyday life in the asylum and explores its social, as well as its scientific, legitimation.


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Mindleap: A Fresh View of Education Empowered by Neuroscience and Systems Thinking

By Jim Brown,

Book cover of Mindleap: A Fresh View of Education Empowered by Neuroscience and Systems Thinking

Jim Brown Author Of Mindleap: A Fresh View of Education Empowered by Neuroscience and Systems Thinking

New book alert!

Why am I passionate about this?

I have spent my entire professional life quietly patrolling the frontiers of understanding human consciousness. I was an early adopter in the burgeoning field of biofeedback, then neurofeedback and neuroscience, plus theory and practices of humanistic and transpersonal psychology, plus steeping myself in systems theory as a context for all these other fields of focus. I hold a MS in psychology from San Francisco State University and a PhD from Saybrook Institute. I live in Mount Shasta CA with Molly, my life partner for over 60 years. We have two sons and two grandchildren.

Jim's book list on brain, mind, and consciousness

What is my book about?

In this thoroughly researched and exquisitely crafted treatise, Jim Brown synthesizes the newest understandings in neuroscience, developmental psychology, and dynamical systems theory for educators and others committed to nurturing human development.

He explains complex concepts in down-to-earth terms, suggesting how these understandings can transform education to engender optimal learning and intelligence. He explores the nature of consciousness, intelligence, and mind.

Brown then offers a model of optimal human learning through lifelong brain development within a supportive culture--drawing on the work of Piaget, Erickson, Maslow, Kohlberg, and Steiner--and how that work is being vastly expanded by neuroscience and dynamical systems thinking.

Mindleap: A Fresh View of Education Empowered by Neuroscience and Systems Thinking

By Jim Brown,

What is this book about?

In this thoroughly-researched and exquisitely crafted treatise, Jim Brown synthesizes the newest understandings in neuroscience, developmental psychology, and dynamical systems theory for educators and others committed to nurturing human development. He explains complex concepts in down-to-earth terms, suggesting how these understandings can transform education to truly engender optimal learning and intelligence. He explores the nature of consciousness, intelligence, and mind. Brown then offers a model of optimal human learning through life-long brain development within a supportive culture--drawing on the work of Piaget, Erickson, Maslow, Kohlberg, and Steiner--and how that work is being vastly expanded by neuroscience and dynamical systems thinking.


5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in mental disorders, photography, and psychiatric hospitals?

11,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about mental disorders, photography, and psychiatric hospitals.

Mental Disorders Explore 170 books about mental disorders
Photography Explore 50 books about photography
Psychiatric Hospitals Explore 43 books about psychiatric hospitals