The Mad Professor

Each of us probably knows some of the very eccentric members of the profession.  Perhaps we even  are one of those people.  Their behavior may be charming, disruptive or both, and one might conjecture that sometimes and with some people it is an accommodation that makes a positive contribution to their livies.  In other cases it can seem too clearly the result of failing to find any accommodation. 

The above perhaps trite comments are meant to clear the way for a genuinely extraordinary story.  Perhaps not unique; people like Elyn Saks tend wisely to keep quiet, if they can, about the disturbances in their minds.  They live in a world of horror quite far from even dismal unhappiness.

The review of Saks’ autobiography, The Center Cannot Hold: My Journey Through Madness, in the New York Review of Books tells us that in  her first year of law school at Yale,

“I feared that my brain was actually heating up and might explode. I visualized brain matter flying all over the room, spattering the walls. Whenever I sat at a desk and tried to read, I caught myself putting my hands up to either side of my head, trying to hold it all in,” [she writes].

The fear did not go away. A few weeks into the semester, after gibbering away on the roof of the law school—believing both that people are out to kill her and that she has killed others (“Don’t try to fuck with me, Richard,” she tells a friend, “I’ve killed better men than you.”)—she is taken to Yale–New Haven Hospital where she surrenders her telephone-wire belt and a roof nail, after which, she writes, “it was all over.”

It wasn’t all over, by any means:

…despite repeated confirmation by doctors of a diagnosis of schizophrenia, Elyn continues to achieve at the highest levels. She graduates from Yale Law School (where she becomes an editor of the Yale Law Journal) and goes on to teach at the University of Southern California Law School, where she is appointed the Orrin B. Evans Professor of Law, Psychiatry, and the Behavioral Sciences. She’s also appointed an adjunct professor of psychiatry at the University of California, San Diego, School of Medicine (“I’ve infiltrated the enemy!” she announces to a friend). She publishes numerous articles and several books, becomes a research clinical associate at the New Center for Psychoanalysis. She falls in love and marries.

The review leaves no room for doubt that Elyn Saks is psychotic:

On her wedding day, alone with her closest friend, Steve, she writes that “a serious question had been troubling me for hours, and finally I just had to ask it. ‘Will aliens be attending the reception?'” Steve holds her hand, tells her that they won’t, and she tells us that she “needed to hear that reassurance from him, and having heard it, I happily went on with the day.”

The book gives a vivid and intelligent account of the elements that add up to living with psychosis. In addition to providing an insider’s view from a very intelligent mind, it argues for an unusual approach to psychosis: medication and talk therapy.


Not specifically feminist, but definitely of interest to feminist philosophers (and anyone else who likes books):  Bookmooch is a web site to facilitate swapping of books worldwide.  I haven’t yet tried it, but it seems like a wonderful idea. (Thanks, lydia!)