Now 32 years old, Lisa, Bright and Dark, a novel about a girl's
mental illness, aimed at younger readers, has not aged well. Teen readers
will probably be mystified by references to Simon and Garfunkel, Sly and
the Family Stone, the Doors, The
Last Summer, and Hair.
They will find it hard to believe that anyone every really used the exclamations
and adjectives "groovy," "bull," "screwy," and "Zowee!" But more than these
superficial barriers, they will probably not recognize the kind of health
care system portrayed in the book.
Lisa is a disturbed teen, whose parents will not listen to her. In apparent
efforts to get the attention of others, her behavior becomes increasingly
bizarre, including attacking one of her friends and walking through a plate
glass window. Her friends have all sorts of theories about what Lisa's
problem is, and Mary Nell reads up on textbook psychiatry, coming up with
a theory of paranoid schizophrenia. Lisa does seem to hear voices, sometimes
she talks in different voices too, she does not sleep and she gets very
angry at inappropriate times.
Betsy, M.N. and Elizabeth, all teen girls in the same grade as Lisa,
join together to help their friend. They go to the school counselor, who
is not much help. They go to their parents, but are fobbed off. They try
to talk with Lisa and give her a group of people with whom she can feel
safe. Eventually things get serious enough for adults to start paying attention,
and a therapist of one of the girls comes to the rescue.
These children appear to be from wealthy families where the father goes
out to work and the mother keeps house. Alcohol, drugs, school violence
and guns are not mentioned as problems at all, and there's one brief mention
of teen pregnancy. Presumably if a girl had serious psychiatric problems
these days, she would either end up in the emergency room of a local hospital,
she would make an appointment at a community mental health center, she
might join a group of other troubled teens for some kind of therapy, or
she would have enter into the maze of managed care treatment. It's very
likely that she would early on receive a prescription for some medication,
such as an anti-anxiety drug or an antidepressant.
In this novel, Lisa is first sent to a rest home mainly for old people
and at the end she goes in for an extended hospitalization of six months
or more. Of course, these days the only long-stay psychiatric hospitals
left are for those with the most untreatable conditions, and most of the
hospitals to which Lisa might have been sent in the late 1960s have been
closed down for decades.
So the world has changed a great deal since when this book was first
released. It is more useful as a historical document than as a guide about
what to do if one of your friends has a serious mental disorder. Maybe
the one feature that remains relevant today is the value of remaining open
and friendly to someone with a mental illness, even if she behaves bizarrely
and does not make any sense.
© 2001 Christian Perring. First Serial Rights.
Ph.D., is Chair of the Philosophy Department at Dowling College,
Long Island. He is editor of Metapsychology Online Review.
His main research is on philosophical issues in psychiatry.
He is especially interested in exploring how philosophers can
play a greater role in public life. He is available to give talks
on many philosophical or controversial issues in mental health.