The best books on startling encounters with mental illness

Why am I passionate about this?

When my older sister died, I felt a pressing need to tell her story. Rachel was a strong, courageous woman, who endured decades in a psychiatric system that failed her. She was a survivor, but the stigma of severe mental illness made her an outcast from most of society. Even so, her enduring passion for poetry inspired me to write about her. I sought out other people’s stories. I enrolled in workshops and therapy. I devoured books and blogs by survivors, advocates, and family members. Everything I read pointed to a troubling rift between the dominant medical model and more humane, less damaging ones. This list represents a slice of my learning.


I wrote...

Roll Back the World: A Sister's Memoir

By Deborah Kasdan,

Book cover of Roll Back the World: A Sister's Memoir

What is my book about?

When my sister Rachel returned from a gap year in Israel, she dazzled friends and family with her sophistication and beauty. Three years later, however, she was committed to a psychiatric hospital with a diagnosis of schizophrenia. As the years passed, I focused on my own family and career but constantly felt shadowed by guilt, especially when a plan to help Rachel backfired and left her hospitalized 2,000 miles from home. Finally a poem Rachel wrote gained her admission, against all odds, to a highly regarded community mental health program. After decades, she gained the freedom she yearned for. In writing my memoir, I came to understand how writing consoled both Rachel and me, and how our writing also connected us.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Jane Eyre

Deborah Kasdan Why did I love this book?

I first read this novel when I was ten. Pages had fallen out and even though I later found intact copies, I read it over and over to fill the gaps in my understanding.

How I loved the way Jane took charge of her fate with such intelligence, the way she captured Rochester’s heart without demeaning herself. But oh that madwoman she encountered in the attic. What did Jane make of Bertha, this “clothed hyena?”

Unlike Rochester, she didn’t blame Bertha for her violence. And while she understood Rochester’s dilemma she couldn’t agree to stay with him. In an intolerable situation, I learned, you can love a person and still leave them. Then Bertha dies in a fire she sets, allowing the couple to marry. But I never took that tacked-on ending very seriously.

By Charlotte Brontë,

Why should I read it?

37 authors picked Jane Eyre 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?

Introduction and Notes by Dr Sally Minogue, Canterbury Christ Church University College.

Jane Eyre ranks as one of the greatest and most perennially popular works of English fiction. Although the poor but plucky heroine is outwardly of plain appearance, she possesses an indomitable spirit, a sharp wit and great courage.

She is forced to battle against the exigencies of a cruel guardian, a harsh employer and a rigid social order. All of which circumscribe her life and position when she becomes governess to the daughter of the mysterious, sardonic and attractive Mr Rochester.

However, there is great kindness and warmth…


Book cover of Wide Sargasso Sea

Deborah Kasdan Why did I love this book?

I knew about this Jane Eyre prequel for some time before reading it—reluctant perhaps to challenge my love for the Victorian romance. But I needed to understand the madwoman. What was her reality?

In Rhys’ book I encounter her in Jamaica, as Antoinette, Creole daughter of a former slaveholder. As a child she is traumatized by racial violence and family tragedy. Then Rochester comes to her island for an arranged marriage, predicated on possession of her inheritance.

When he feels threatened by a culture he doesn’t understand, he decides to crush Antoinette, even changing her name to Bertha just because he can. When she tries to resist the oppression of British patriarchy, she loses her freedom as well as her identity. No wonder she loses her mind.

By Jean Rhys,

Why should I read it?

9 authors picked Wide Sargasso Sea as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Wide Sargasso Sea, a masterpiece of modern fiction, was Jean Rhys's return to the literary center stage. She had a startling early career and was known for her extraordinary prose and haunting women characters. With Wide Sargasso Sea, her last and best-selling novel, she ingeniously brings into light one of fiction's most fascinating characters: the madwoman in the attic from Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre. This mesmerizing work introduces us to Antoinette Cosway, a sensual and protected young woman who is sold into marriage to the prideful Mr. Rochester. Rhys portrays Cosway amidst a society so driven by hatred, so skewed…


Book cover of I Know This Much Is True

Deborah Kasdan Why did I love this book?

Before my sister became so ill, people used to say we looked alike. But ours was just a resemblance. In this novel, Dominick looks exactly like his brother, who has schizophrenia. Dominick encounters his identical twin every time he looks in a mirror. And he is terrified.

I first read this book 25 years ago and inhaled every one of the intertwined subplots in its 900 + pages. Recently, I re-read the “story within the story,” a memoir by Dominick’s grandfather. I became fascinated by his story about the Sicilian market where one chicken transforms into two whole ones—a bit of magical realism about twinning, schizophrenia, and hope. I too excavated old family documents to understand why my sibling suffered so much.

By Wally Lamb,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked I Know This Much Is True as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

#1 New York Times Bestseller and Oprah Book Club selection

"Thoughtful . . . heart-wrenching . . . . An exercise in soul-baring storytelling—with the soul belonging to 20th-century America itself. It's hard to read and to stop reading, and impossible to forget."  — USA Today

Dominick Birdsey, a forty-year-old housepainter living in Three Rivers, Connecticut, finds his subdued life greatly disturbed when his identical twin brother Thomas, a paranoid schizophrenic, commits a shocking act of self-mutilation. Dominick is forced to care for his brother as well as confront dark secrets and pain he has buried deep within himself—a journey…


Book cover of The Soloist: A Lost Dream, an Unlikely Friendship, and the Redemptive Power of Music

Deborah Kasdan Why did I love this book?

When Steven Lopez spotted a homeless Black violinist playing classical music on Skid Row he saw material for his column in the L.A. Times.

He succeeded in making Nathaniel Ayers, a Julliard dropout with schizophrenia, a cause célèbre—and a friend for life. Lopez was determined to find answers. Couldn’t Nathaniel be forced into a facility that would help him? From, counselors with experience on Skid Row, and from Nathaniel himself, he learned why not: coercion destroys trust and the ability to provide any assistance.  

Since Lopez’s encounter in 2005, two overlapping crises have only intensified: homelessness for those down on their luck and a lack of care for those with serious mental illness. Controversial measures to forcibly hospitalize and medicate homeless people who seem mentally ill are being adopted across the U.S..

The issues Lopez faced eighteen years ago are more relevant than ever.

By Steve Lopez,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

The New York Times bestselling true story that inspired the major motion picture—an “unforgettable tale of hope, heart and humanity”(People).

Journalist Steve Lopez discovered of Nathaniel Ayers, a former classical bass student at Julliard, playing his heart out on a two-string violin on Los Angeles’s Skid Row. Deeply affected by the beauty of Ayers’s music, Lopez took it upon himself to change the prodigy's life—only to find that their relationship would have a profound change on his own.

“An intimate portrait of mental illness, of atrocious social neglect, and the struggle to resurrect a fallen prodigy.”—Mark Bowden, author of Black…


Book cover of The Mind and the Moon: My Brother's Story, the Science of Our Brains, and the Search for Our Psyches

Deborah Kasdan Why did I love this book?

Psychiatric medications are prescribed more judiciously than when my sister first took them, but still many people find them intolerable.

Bergner first encountered mental illness when his younger brother Bob was diagnosed with bipolar disorder after dancing on a ferry to the rhythm of the ocean. Sadly, his parents believed that dancing was a symptom to be eliminated with higher doses of lithium.

Bergner finds two others to share their experiences: a roller derby star turned peer counselor, who heard voices since childhood; and a lawyer who feels doomed to failure despite his achievements in important cases. All three discontinue medication, two of them successfully.

Interspersed with their stories is a short history of psychiatry with a focus on the limitations of neuroscience and serious missteps in psychopharmacology.

By Daniel Bergner,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Mind and the Moon as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

“A profound and powerful work of essential reporting." —The New York Times Book Review

An important—and intimate—interrogation of how we treat mental illness and how we understand ourselves

In the early 1960s, JFK declared that science would take us to the moon. He also declared that science would make the “remote reaches of the mind accessible” and cure psychiatric illness with breakthrough medications. We were walking on the moon within the decade. But today, psychiatric cures continue to elude us—as does the mind itself. Why is it that we still don’t understand how the mind works? What is the difference…


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Call Me Stan: A Tragedy in Three Millennia

By K.R. Wilson,

Book cover of Call Me Stan: A Tragedy in Three Millennia

K.R. Wilson Author Of Call Me Stan: A Tragedy in Three Millennia

New book alert!

Why am I passionate about this?

Author Novelist Reader History enthusiast Occasional composer Sometime chorister

K.R.'s 3 favorite reads in 2023

What is my book about?

When King Priam's pregnant daughter was fleeing the sack of Troy, Stan was there. When Jesus of Nazareth was beaten and crucified, Stan was there - one crossover. He’s been a Hittite warrior, a Silk Road mercenary, a reluctant rebel in the Peasant’s Revolt of 1381, and an information peddler in the cabarets of post-war Berlin. Stan doesn't die, and he doesn't know why. And now he's being investigated for a horrific crime.

As Stan tells his story, from his origins as an Anatolian sheep farmer to his custody in a Toronto police interview room, he brings a wry, anachronistic…

Call Me Stan: A Tragedy in Three Millennia

By K.R. Wilson,

What is this book about?

Long-listed for the 2022 Leacock Medal for Humour

When King Priam's pregnant daughter was fleeing the sack of Troy, Stan was there. When Jesus of Nazareth was beaten and crucified, Stan was there - one cross over. Stan has been a Hittite warrior, a Roman legionnaire, a mercenary for the caravans of the Silk Road and a Great War German grunt. He’s been a toymaker in a time of plague, a reluctant rebel in the Peasants' Revolt of 1381, and an information peddler in the cabarets of post-war Berlin. Stan doesn't die, and he doesn't know why. And now he's…


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