EPISODE 5 - Dawson’s Creek
Guest: Esmé Weijun Wang
Sandy chats with novelist, essayist, and author of The Collected Schizophrenias Esmé Weijun Wang about the 1998 teen drama Dawson’s Creek. They cover how horror tropes creep into portrayals of psychosis, whether character Andie McPhee’s mental health narrative was tidied up for mainstream audiences, and who the show’s real hero was (hint: not the owner of the titular creek). A transcript of the episode can be found below.
ABOUT OUR GUEST
Esmé Weijun Wang (she/her/hers) is a novelist and essayist. She is the author of the New York Times-bestselling essay collection, The Collected Schizophrenias (2019), for which she won the Graywolf Nonfiction Prize. Her debut novel, The Border of Paradise, was called a Best Book of 2016 by NPR and one of the 25 Best Novels of 2016 by Electric Literature. She was named by Granta as one of the “Best of Young American Novelists” in 2017 and won the Whiting Award in 2018. Born in the Midwest to Taiwanese parents, she lives in San Francisco, and can be found at esmewang.com and on Twitter @esmewang.
SOME SUGGESTED RESOURCES FROM SANDY
Obviously! Read The Collected Schizophrenias! And / or listen to the audiobook! We discussed several essays from it, including “Toward a Pathology of the Possessed,” “High-Functioning,” and “Reality, On-Screen”. Sandy’s favorite essay in the collection is “Beyond the Hedge.”
===>Join Sandy for the first-ever Mad Chat Book Club! Thursday, August 1st at 8pm eastern on the Mad Chat Show Instagram. We will be discussing The Collected Schizophrenias. Show up with questions or submit them ahead of time via DM on IG, Twitter, or Facebook or email us: firstname.lastname@example.org⇐==
Sandy mentioned I Never Promised You a Rose Garden by Joanne Greenberg (published originally under a penname), a somewhat forgotten classic work of autobiographical fiction that’s highly recommended by Sandy. Here’s a great autobiography of real-life psychiatrist who the psychiatrist character in that book is based upon.
We mention how media portrayals emphasize violence committed by people with psychiatric diagnoses. If you want to know more about this, here’s Sandy’s essay on how the media covers mental health.
We mentioned several topics briefly in this episode that were covered in previous eps, if you haven’t yet checked them out!
For much more about people hearing from / having relationships with deceased loved ones, go back to episode 3, our discussion of voice hearing and Six Feet Under ⚰️
For more about depression and anxiety, check out episode 1, about Bojack Horseman 🐎
I also mentioned Crazy-Ex Girlfriend 🎈, which was our focus for episode 2
And check out episode 4 for way more about the book we mention and the whole problematic concept of “reefer madness” 🍃
SANDY ALLEN: Maybe you have a memory like this: something on VHS maybe, or a DVD that when you were a little kid you watched over and over and over. I think for me it would have to be Bugs Bunny on Looney Toons, old VHS tape:
[CLIP FROM LOONEY TUNES]
BUGS BUNNY: Eh, what’s up, Doc?
SANDY: My producer Lee was saying that for her it’s the trailer for The Proud Family.
[PROUD FAMILY THEME SONG]
SANDY: And for my next guest Esmé Weijun Wang it was this particular scene from Dawson’s Creek.
[CLIP FROM DAWSON’S CREEK]
ANDIE MCPHEE: I can’t choose.
PACEY WITTER: You have to choose. And I’m begging you from the bottom of my heart to please choose me.
ESMÉ WEIJUN WANG: I wasn’t quite sure at the time what it was that fascinated me so much about this scene, but I think it was, you know — part of it was just this interest in the angst of the scene. But the other part of it was really wishing that I had somebody in my life who cared enough about me to plead with me to be well.
SANDY: Esmé is the author of a couple of books, most recently the bestseller The Collected Schizophrenias, an essays collection about her own experience being diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder. I first met Esmé about a year and a half ago when she so graciously did an event for my book, A Kind of Mirraculas Paradise. And I am just thrilled to have her on Mad Chat today talking about this one scene from Dawson’s Creek.
[MAD CHAT THEME MUSIC]
SANDY: This is Mad Chat, a podcast where we unpack what our pop culture is telling us about madness and mental health. I’m your host Sandy Allen. This week, I’m very excited to be discussing the show that gave the internet the glorious gift that it is the Dawson ugly-cry meme: Dawson’s Creek.
[DAWSON’S CREEK THEME, PAULA COLE’S “I DON’T WANT TO WAIT”]
SANDY: And here to have a chat with me is the incredible Esmé Weijun Wang. Esmé, welcome to Mad Chat.
ESMÉ: Yeah, thank you so much for having me.
SANDY: So when I’ve been talking with various, you know, potential guests for Mad Chat, some people, you know, don’t know right away what they want to discuss. But you, you knew not only what show you wanted to discuss, but a particular episode in that show, a particular scene, almost, in that episode. And so, yeah — I admit I hadn’t actually seen a minute of Dawson’s Creek before you suggested it, though I have watched a lot of it now. And so for those listeners who have, you know, never seen it, or have somehow managed to get the, you know, title song out of their head, Dawson’s Creek was a series about teens that was — that aired on The WB from 1998 to 2003. And it had a lot of actors in it who made me say “Oh! They’re from Dawson’s Creek!” like James Van Der Beek, Katie Holmes, Joshua Jackson, Michelle Williams. And the show follows Dawson — who’s this Spielberg-obsessed aspiring filmmaker teenager boy who lives near a creek — and his crew of friends and sometimes girlfriends as they progress through high school, having crushes and feelings and also talking about crushes and talking about feelings. And so Esmé, the particular episode that you wanted to talk about is from the second season, episode 20 — it’s called “Reunited.” And it has to do with a character named Andie McPhee. You mentioned this was an episode that you watched over and over — take us back in time. Who were you when you first watched Dawson’s Creek, or this particular episode? Like, how old were you and what was your life like?
ESMÉ: Yeah, so, now that you mention it, knowing that the show started in 1998, there are so many things that strike me as so bonkers to think about. I mean, Dawson’s Creek had the first gay kiss in it. And, you know, 1998 seems like a long time ago, but it wasn’t actually that long ago. So I — I was, let’s see, 1998 — so I was maybe a freshman in high school, I was a teen, and I was going through a lot of mental health issues. And so I started watching this show, [5:00] I didn’t become so obsessed with it that I watched all the seasons, but the first few seasons definitely caught my attention. And I particularly became intrigued by, as you mention, the character of Andie McPhee, who is played by Meredith Monroe. And the — the episode that I was particularly interested in was called “Reunited,” and it’s in season two, and I taped it on VHS and I remember just watching it in my bedroom where I had a little TV and a little VCR. And I would just watch that episode over and over again. And it was so funny because I had suggested that we watch this episode and talk about it for this podcast, but I hadn’t rewatched it since, you know, the late 90s. But in rewatching it I realized that I had not forgotten any of it. I mean, every, like, beat by beat, like the emotions, like the — the details, the kind of — the way the actors spoke and paused and moved. Like all of it was really burned into my, you know — into my memory, because it had such an impact on me. And, you know, in — in reading your notes about the show, I feel like it’s so funny that this was — made such an impact on my impressions about mental illness, because there were some really strange things that Dawson’s Creek purported to depict about mental illness.
SANDY: Yeah. I’m — I really, I want to get into that. Let’s — let’s explain a little bit, if you wouldn’t mind, like, who Andie McPhee is, and kind of what this — what this scene is that we’re talking about.
ESMÉ: Sure. So Andie McPhee is this very brainy character — she’s Type A, loves to get good grades. She’s known in this small town for having a crazy mother who it seems went crazy, or had some sort of nervous breakdown, after killing her son in a car accident.
[CLIP FROM DAWSON’S CREEK]
ANDIE MCPHEE: I mean, she’s not always like this. I mean, sometimes she’s fine. But you just never know, and I’m the only one who can handle her. [Tearful] And sometimes that just gets really hard.
ESMÉ: So part of Andie’s responsibility is this caring for her mother, who is kind of this mysterious figure in the upstairs — as far as we know.
SANDY: (laughing) Yeah, yeah, she’s mostly upstairs, yeah. She’s like an upstairs character.
ESMÉ: Yeah, she’s mostly upstairs. Yeah, it’s like the Muppet babies (laughs) with — with the nanny. Anyway, so Andie McPhee starts to date Pacey Witter, who is the — the kind of wild boy of the creek.
SANDY: Yeah, Joshua Jackson.
ESMÉ: Yeah, Joshua Jackson. And when the show starts, Pacey is, you know, having sex with one of the teachers at the school —
SANDY: I know!
ESMÉ: Yeah, and so —
SANDY: Whoa, I was so blown away by that (ESMÉ laughs). Like I was like, oh my gosh, this show was, like, raunchy. But also the social attitudes towards an adult sleeping with a 14, 15-year-old child sure have shifted.
ESMÉ: I felt like such a — such a stick in the mud, too, every time the teenagers would talk about having sex. I was like, oh my gosh, like, you know — anyway, I felt like such a — such a prude. And also such an adult.
SANDY: Oh, yeah.
ESMÉ: So Pacey (BOTH laugh) — so Pacey — Pacey falls for Andie, and they have this relationship, and she kind of helps turn him around, you know? And helps him —
SANDY: They’re, like, super in love. They have, like, the —
ESMÉ: Yeah, they’re super in love.
SANDY: — the most beautiful love that we’ve ever seen, you know, style love. Yeah.
ESMÉ: (laughs) Yes. But then something — something very catastrophic happens in — in the town, which is that this character Abby dies. And it — even before Abby dies, Andie is kind of having some problems. And we learn that she is perhaps on medication — on medication on and off. The medications that she’s on vary, or the — the names of the medications that she’s on vary, and I was very intrigued by this. I think Nardil was named, which I think is an MAOI inhibitor — MAO inhibitor — which is, you know, very rarely used now. And then also Xanax is described as an — as an anti-anxiety, anti-depressant, which I do not think anybody would describe Xanax as —
SANDY: An antidepressant, and it’s Joshua Jackson who says that.
[CLIP FROM DAWSON’S CREEK]
ANDIE MCPHEE: Pacey, please. [10:00] Just give it back!
PACEY WITTER: (clears throat) Andrea McPhee, take two tablets daily as directed, Xanax, 20 milligrams. Xanax, that’s a — that’s for severe depression and anxiety, right? It’s like Prozac…
SANDY: I was like, wow, since when did this character know, like, how to identify a psychiatric drug. It felt so — it reminded me a lot of, like, when Ice-T knows everything on Law and Order: SVU. Like, it just had this sort of, like, there’s not terribly believable. Yes, but I also noticed that the sort of, like, name of what she was on sort of shifted around a little bit in the lead-up to the, you know, the — the sequence. And — and Abby also, I mean, one of the things about her — she’s this really, like, loathed character and then she dies, and then everyone kind of struggles with what to do with that. But she particularly bullies Andie. Like, she is running against Andie in the student council, or the sophomore class elections or whatever, and she says on the stage all of this stuff about Andie’s mom, about Andie’s mom killing, you know, the brother, about —
[CLIP FROM DAWSON’S CREEK]
ABBY MORGAN: So, the fact of the matter is Mommy McPhee is a whacked-out nut. And we all know that mental illness is hereditary.
SANDY: There’s a very clear, like, oh, we shouldn’t trust you because your mom is crazy, you know? There’s this really big, vicious, you know, public humiliation that happens to — to Andie onstage, and she, like, rushes off and such. And then pretty soon after, Abby is dead. And Andie is sort of thrust into eulogizing her by, like, Abby’s mother. (ESMÉ laughs) And so yeah, this is all, like, kind of in the — in the background, and then as — as we get toward that — that episode “Reunited,” you know, what happens? Who — who is she reunited with?
ESMÉ: She is reunited with — dun dun dun — her dead brother, Tim. (SANDY laughs). And so something that I guess Dawson’s Creek is trying to tell us is that if you — if you are depressed and anxious and/or just crazy, you may just see your dead brother appear and just, you know, chat — chat with him (laughs). So — so in the beginning of the episode, the first thing that you notice is that Andie has dyed her blonde hair brown.
ESMÉ: And I — and you — I thought you might have something to say about that.
SANDY: (laughing) I thought you might have something to say about that. I mean, it’s such a trope, right? It’s like a — it happens in Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, too, like when she sort of is the most kind of vengefully going after her ex, she dyes her hair darker brunette. And then when she sort of settles back down it goes back to normal. And Andie McPhee there’s sort of a similar thing, right? She dyes her hair right as this episode starts, and as soon as it’s happened I was like, oh, here we go. And — but yeah, you’ve written quite a bit about, you know, appearance, especially, like, women’s appearances and the way that we sort of have prejudices to do with different diagnoses, and I was curious to hear your thoughts about the way, you know, the show is like, oop, Andie has dyed her hair.
ESMÉ: In my book I talk a lot about using appearance as some sort of defense or some form of weaponization against what other people might think of you, and here that’s not so much what Andie is doing as much as it is a symptom of what she’s going through. Because, you know — so she appears and Jack, her brother, and Pacey are kind of walking alongside her, and she’s just kind of flippantly telling Pacey “You don’t like me new hair.” And he’s like, “Oh, no no no, I’m not saying that. It’s just different.” And then as soon as she walks away, Jack tells him:
[CLIP FROM DAWSON’S CREEK]
JACK MCPHEE: It’s the hair, okay? She’s extra sensitive. She did it herself!
PACEY WITTER: Well, ain’t love grand.
ESMÉ: So it’s — it’s very much a sign of something gone wrong.
SANDY: Mhm. And then — and then yeah, I’m curious to hear — so when the show is showing Tim, you write in — in one of your essays in the book, you write about John Nash and A Beautiful Mind and sort of the way that his experiences are handled by that movie, and I was thinking about that as I was thinking about Tim’s depiction here. But, you know, how does this — you know, how does this make sense to you, or not? How does this — how does this square with your experiences of psychosis or your — sort of, like, your knowledge of it versus, you know, how much is this just, like, a Hollywood misinterpretation?
ESMÉ: Yeah, I feel like (sighs) it’s both similar and dissimilar to the John Nash situation in A Beautiful Mind. So in my essay “Reality Onscreen” in The Collected Schizophrenias, I talk about how I’d originally watched A Beautiful Mind and felt that the [15:00] depiction of John Nash’s hallucinations was absolutely ridiculous. And that’s how I was meant to watch it. I’d watched it in an abnormal psychology class at Yale, and the depiction of his hallucinations, you know, his — his buddy, you learn in this kind of, like, M. Night Shyamalan twist that this best friend has been fake all along, it’s just been this elaborate — elaborate hallucination.
[CLIP FROM A BEAUTIFUL MIND]
JOHN NASH: The prodigal roommate revealed. "Saw my name on the lecture slate." YOU LYING SON OF A BITCH!
DR. ROSEN: Who are you talking to? Tell me who you see.
JOHN NASH: How do you say "Charles Herman" in Russian?
DR. ROSEN: No one there, John. There’s no one there.
JOHN NASH: He’s right there!
ESMÉ: The class kind of talked about how this was absolutely not how hallucinations work, and that’s absolutely not how my hallucinations have worked. Hallucinations are not like that. They’re not kind of continuous in that way, they don’t have that kind of — it’s just — it’s just absolutely not the way that I’ve experienced hallucinations during psychosis. However, what I ended up concluding or thinking about in the essay is that it is a good way to depict delusions, because in order to convince the viewer in the case of A Beautiful Mind of this situation of, you know, John Nash being recruited by the CIA for all these nefarious purposes, we need to believe that the Ed Harris character is actually a real person, and is actually trying to get him to do certain things. So in that way, it’s actually pretty effective. So I — I ended up giving the movie more credit than I had originally given it. So we can kinda look at the Tim character in this episode of Dawson’s Creek and kind of think about whether or not he plays a similar role. And I would have to say he does not, because we know (SANDY laughs) — we know from the get-go that Tim is dead, so we are not — we are not gonna be fooled into thinking that — that this Tim character is actually there. So yeah — so he is — he is there, he’s played by this handsome, brown-haired dude (BOTH laugh), and — and, you know, Pacey’s at her house in — in close to the pivotal scene of the — of the show, and the scene that I watched over and over and over again, and he hears Andie talking to herself. He hears her talking to someone named Brown, and he doesn’t know who that is, and I think — doesn’t he, like, talk to Jack about this, or something?
SANDY: Yeah. He and Jack sort of have a debrief.
[CLIP FROM DAWSON’S CREEK]
JACK: Last night I caught her talking to herself. I mean, she said she wasn’t, but I heard her.
PACEY: So did I! Tonight, I mean, she was in the kitchen, I thought she was talking to somebody on the phone.
JACK: Talking with who?
PACEY: I — I don’t know. I didn’t hear the whole conversation, but it sounded like she was talking to someone named Brown.
ESMÉ: And then she interrupts them and is, like, it was a nickname for Tim, it was the color of his hair. And, you know, and — and there’s sort of this — but I think your point there, like, that the show doesn’t at all try to — like, that there is no M. Night Shyamalan twist in this episode, like, there is no extent to which the audience believes that Tim is alive and real along with Andie, that it’s — it’s a — they are casting a real actor, he’s playing, you know — he’s, like, in this scene with her literally, he’s hugging her in a car. And yet we are meant to understand this is not real. And I — I guess I wonder, too, I mean the appearance of Tim in a mirror is another device that they use more than once, as well, you know, where she’ll look in the mirror and then she’ll see him in the mirror. And it — it seemed like there was an — a real attempt to make it, like — it was definitely meant to be scary, right? Like, we were meant to sort of see this and be like (gasps). Like, the first time it happens, she’s gone to Abby’s bedroom to steal her diary to keep Abby’s mom from reading how mean Abby was to her own mom, and that — like, this is a girl who she, like, didn’t like, and then she, like, looks in a mirror and sees Tim. And the show is definitely playing up the — the fear of it.
SANDY: The horror.
ESMÉ: Yeah. So the scene that had such an impact on me, and the one that I watched over and over again when I was a teenager, is one where Andie runs down the stairs and into [20:00] the bathroom and she locks herself in the bathroom. And the — the scene becomes a kind of battle — battle of wills — of wills between Tim, the hallucination, and Pacey, who is outside the bathroom door begging Andie to choose him.
[CLIP FROM DAWSON’S CREEK]
ANDIE MCPHEE: Go away!
PACEY WITTER: I’m not going anywhere, Andie.
ANDIE MCPHEE: (tearful) Not you. Tim!
PACEY WITTER: Is he in there right now? (light knocking) Is Tim in there with you?
ANDIE MCPHEE: (yelling) I said go away! You’re not real!
PACEY WITTER: (yelling) Tim!
ANDIE MCPHEE: (sobs) Go!
(Sound of mirror being smashed)
PACEY WITTER: (yelling) Andie!
ESMÉ: Andie is just, like, you know, this crazy girl. She’s a mess, she’s in tears. She keeps, you know, seeing Tim — Tim is trying to coax her into choosing him. We’re not really sure what that means, but I guess it means some kind of, like, becoming more crazy, or choosing insanity. (BOTH laugh) Pacey says something like:
[CLIP FROM DAWSON’S CREEK]
PACEY WITTER: You are so special. And you give so much to everybody around you. And you know what, Andie? I need you more than Tim does.
ESMÉ: Is — it’s a very intense scene, and Jack is very useless in this scene, he’s just kind of hanging around uselessly behind Pacey. And so finally, in the end, the tear-stained Andie slowly reaches up and grabs the doorknob and opens the bathroom door and collapses into Pacey’s arms and is sobbing. And so — so she has chosen Pacey, and not the hallucination slash insanity.
SANDY: Yeah, and she breaks the mirror, right? She — she —
ESMÉ: Oh yes. Yes.
SANDY: She’s been seeing Tim in the mirror, which is this, you know, kind of, like, horror trope, but she smashes the mirror, which is kind of, like, makes Pacey and Jack on the other side of the door even more alarmed. So I’m curious what about this scene, what was your reaction to it? What — what fascinated you about it, or what are your thoughts on it now?
ESMÉ: I think — you know, yeah, like I — I wasn’t quite sure at the time what it was that fascinated me so much about this scene, but I think it was, you know — part of it was just this interest in the angst of the scene. But the other part of it was really wishing that I had somebody in my life who cared enough about me to plead with me to, you know — to be well. At the time I had been self-harming for a number of years, and by this time I hadn’t started seeing a psychiatrist yet, but I had been struggling with anxiety and depression for a while. It — it just was something that I could identify with in some ways. I really identified with the Andie McPhee character. I was a massive overachiever, I lived in a small town. I was not white, so that was a different thing. But I — I really felt for her, and I — yeah, I really wanted a Pacey of my own. Not necessarily romantically, although I’m sure that was part of it, but just somebody who cared enough to want to beg for my sanity outside of a bathroom door.
SANDY: Yeah. Yeah. It’s interesting, Pacey is — he’s an interesting person in this show in that even I’m thinking about that first scene where Andie’s mom is — there’s something going on at a grocery store, and she’s sort of summoned there, and she begs them not to call the police, and she and Pacey show up. And it’s Pacey who’s sort of able to get, you know, Andie’s mom to kind of, like, come with him.
[CLIP FROM DAWSON’S CREEK]
PACEY WITTER: What are you doing here? Picking up some groceries?
ANDREA MCPHEE: I don’t know — I don’t know —
PACEY WITTER: Don’t worry about it. Just help me pick out a couple things. Hey, check it out, marshmallows. It’s a food group all in its own.
ANDREA MCPHEE: You don’t want that. I have some turkey and some roast beef in the fridge.
SANDY: He’s sort of identified as being this, like, really caring listener who’s able to approach someone who’s maybe in another, you know, state of mind, with a lot of, like, compassion. And it is very striking how, you know — how much he really expresses love and support of Andie, even as — as her experiences start to frighten him.
ESMÉ: Yeah, exactly. I mean he is kind of the hero of the show, even though he is the bad boy. I mean, nobody was really cheering for Dawson. Even though — [25:00]
SANDY: No (laughs). Dawson’s the worst.
ESMÉ: He is — he is the — I mean, I was talking with my partner about being on this podcast, and I mentioned that it was going to be about Dawson’s Creek, and he — he said something about Dawson being the hero of the show, and I kind of exploded, like, no, Dawson was not the hero of the show. And — and he said, well, wasn’t it his creek? Isn’t that the titular creek? (SANDY laughs) And I was like no, no, Pacey — Pacey is the hero of the show. I mean, Pacey and — is the one that ends up with Joey, the Katie Holmes character, at the end of the show. But yeah, there’s this idea in the kind of Pacey-Andie relationship where there’s the bad boy who is kind of an outsider and the — the good girl who is also an outsider because of her mental illness kind of like coming together. And, you know, later in — in other episodes they — they end up breaking up after she goes to the mental hospital or psychiatric hospital. But in that moment, they’re very close. And in the episode after that one it’s this very loving kind of parting as she has to leave because of her illness.
SANDY: Yeah. They — they have a really difficult decision, and she ultimately decides — at first it seems like she’s gonna be kind of forcibly taken away from Pacey and her life and — and put in a hospital, but then she actually resolves that she wants to go, and she, you know, says a farewell to Pacey that’s really emotional before she goes to the hospital for the summer. And, you know, so I wondered — you know, in terms of the way the show is — is showing Andie’s experiences, what about it strikes you as, you know, kind of important to show, or accurate, or believable, and what about it strikes you as, I guess for lack of a better word, problematic, or resting on false stereotype?
ESMÉ: Oh, such a good question. I mean, this is, you know, looking back on it, gosh, it — it’s not even ten years, it’s twenty years ago — twenty years ago, you know, things were different in a lot of ways, and actually a lot of things haven’t changed. So I do find it interesting that, in the end, you know, as a narrative technique, Andie decides to go of her own free will. She’s not involuntarily committed. I think that would’ve made the show a lot more difficult, and so — or I think that would’ve made viewers a lot more upset, and — and so they made that narrative choice. In terms of whether I think that they could’ve done things differently or whether they — the characters should have been rendered differently, I mean, it was a soap opera, a teenage soap opera, in like the late nineties, early thousands, and I did not and do not hold such high expectations for it.
SANDY: Sure (laughs).
ESMÉ: I think that the show that (laughs) — I think a show, though, that like I watched later and think that, like, portrayed mental illness in a slightly more realistic way was the — the newer Degrassi. Like, not the one — not the original one, but the — the one that ended up having the Drake — the Drake character. Because I kind of obsessively watched that one for a while, and it had a character who had bipolar disorder, and it also had a character who self-harmed, and that one felt a lot more realistic. The Andie McPhee character is very dramatic in the way that a soap opera is meant to be dramatic. And I think it was appropriate for me at the time, and what I needed. I don’t think watching it harmed me in any particular way, although it perhaps romanticized mental illness in a way that could’ve been problematic. I don’t know. What do you think?
SANDY: Well I wondered, I guess, about the hospital that she goes to. I mean, so one of the things about Andie is she’s, like, got a wealthy father who’s, like, in Providence, which is somewhere else. And — and so when she eventually acquiesces to go into treatment, she — we — we see a moment of that hospital when she’s being picked up by Pacey and her sort of infidelity is being found out. And it seems like a mansion country club type thing. And she’s, like, resting on a big four-poster bed, has this, like — it very much looks like she stayed at like a cool B&B, is sort of the look of it, [30:00] which I guess just said to me, like, she’s spectacularly wealthy and/or I think this is — like, you’re alluding to this I think, like — the show can only show a version of mental healthcare. It has to show a version that is, like, you admit your problem, you go to the hospital, you arrive back at your life better. Like, after that, there is no recurrence of Tim. There’s a lot of, like — I think it has to be that tidy — it has to be, like, a good experience. She can’t go into the hospital not of her own volition and disagree with being in the hospital for the entire time and be, like, forcibly medicated. Like, that can’t be on The WB. Is that kind of, like, when you’re — when you’re referring to kind of, like, the way that, you know, the — that her, you know, agreeing to go into the hospital is sort of a better narrative move for the show than, like, her being taken against her will?
ESMÉ: Yes, exactly. And I think that you mentioning how the hospital itself is portrayed is such a good point, too. The whole, like, country club description is so perfect. It — it reminded me of descriptions of, like, the kind of rehabs that really wealthy Hollywood people would go to. You know, my experiences of being involuntarily hospitalized have always been very traumatizing and scary. There’s a lot that, you know, is out of your control. There’s a really serious lack of autonomy. I really do not see how one could end up having an affair or infidelity within the walls of a psychiatric hospital, but she somehow manages to do it. Yeah, so — yeah, that is a really good point. And — yeah. The hospital is glossed over, just as the hospitalization is glossed over, just as the — the kind of more ugly parts of her illness are glossed over.
SANDY: Yeah. And — and as you’re pointing out, like, this is a genre thing in part, an audience thing in part. I’m sure they — they know they can, like, edge up to certain topics that are perceived as racy, but they feel like they can’t go over whatever that line is. But I do think it’s interesting, right, that like the show is very unequivocally, like, it’s — it’s telling us one story about Andie, and it’s telling us another story about Jack, her brother, who’s, you know, the gay character who come — comes out despite this kind of, like, prejudiced dad. And over time by doing things like joining the football team (ESMÉ laughs) wins his dad’s — you know, he, like, puts on a uniform, and his dad’s like, wait a minute, I have a son after all, and it’s like (noise of disgust/frustration). But I, you know, it is interesting — what is — what is that line according to the values of a show like this in the late nineties because a place like, you know — this is where the likes of you, for example, was learning about mental illness, was learning about psychiatric treatment, was learning about how, you know, the — the community around you, for example, would react to these ideas. In this society, a mention of mental illness is enough to make everyone go, like (gasps). But I wonder, you know, when — when we’ve got these sort of romanticized, or sort of fantasies of these things kind of being sold as if, you know, this is the way it would be, when I don’t know, in the late nineties and now, I don’t think the experience that Andie has is necessarily the experience that someone’s going to have who decides, of their own accord, to enter a psychiatric hospital. Like, as you write about, people enter hospitals all the time voluntarily, but then become regarded as involuntarily there, and you can often lose your ability to leave even if you walked in the doors of your own accord.
ESMÉ: Yeah, that’s what happened to me the third time that I was involuntarily hospitalized. I walked in voluntarily and then had my status shifted.
SANDY: One of the things that you are writing about in several essays in The Collected Schizophrenias is the relationship between psychosis and violence, especially, like, the public perception of the relationship between those two things. The first words of the first essay in the collection are “Schizophrenia terrifies”, which is a line I read as having multiple meanings, one of which is this, you know — the reaction that — that people have to the concept of schizophrenia. And I — I think a lot about, you know, this perception of violence and psychosis especially. And I was reading this interview with the guy Alex Berenson, the journalist who wrote this book that’s popular, also this year, called Tell Your Children, which is about cannabis and psychosis and, you know, basically is it making an argument that’s like Reefer Madness 2.0. But he has this quote in this interview that he’s saying, like, schizophrenics have a — have a homicide rate that’s twenty times normal. And I was spending time afterward —
SANDY: Yeah, I was trying to figure out, like, [35:00] what he is even referring to. I was like, where are you even coming up with something like this? But I was then thinking about, it doesn’t really matter, ‘cause it’s mostly, like, he’s used whatever data to support his notion, which is, like, psychosis equals scary bad.
[DIGITAL START-UP SOUND]
SANDY: Hey, Sandy, I wanted to briefly interrupt myself to say if you want to hear way more about this book we just mentioned and its problematic claims, might I recommend the previous episode of this podcast, episode four, where I interview cannabis reporter Amanda Chicago Lewis about Reefer Madness — the whole dang concept, the old movie, the newer movie, this latest book. So yeah, episode four of the show if you’re interested in more on cannabis and madness and myths and reality in that space.
[DIGITAL SHUTTING DOWN SOUND]
SANDY: How do you respond to somebody’s, you know, basically like resting on that stereotype, or sort of seeking to advance it further? Like, how should we be thinking about the relationship between psychosis, psychotic disorders, people diagnosed with them, and violence?
ESMÉ: I mean, that’s, I think, one kind of positive thing about the Andie McPhee character, from that show and that time, was that she was considered so high-functioning and so — so positive. I mean, she — she’s the one who, like, is so morally upright, and she’s the one who also has mental illness. Not that we should look at people who have mental illness as needing to, I don’t know, be all of those things, or to be perfect in order to justify their existence, or justify our existence. But it’s — it portrayed the example of psychosis, or whatever she was experiencing with Tim, as something that somebody of that type could experience, as opposed to, say, some kind of evil character who lived in the town, who was perhaps violent.
SANDY: Yeah, I — I know what you’re saying here. Like, Andie is — there’s a lot of aspects of her that feel like they’re trying to push back against our expectation of — of — of what a person must be if they have a diagnosis.
ESMÉ: I mean it — it reminds me a lot of, like, the kind of news stories these days that are, like, here’s this great thing this immigrant did, (SANDY laughs) or this great thing this migrant did —
SANDY: Oh boy.
ESMÉ: You know, and kind of, like, you know, which is — why should — why should we need to justify the existence of human beings? But there is — there is an audience for those kinds of stories, unfortunately, and — and that’s what I think about when you ask that question about violence and psychosis. And I think that was in part what made my book so weirdly popular. It was kind of telling a story that was not being told elsewhere. And I — I think that a lot of people really — really liked the idea of this book being written by a fairly high-functioning person diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder, and — and wanted to share it, you know, with their family, or with their therapist, or with their psychiatrist, etcetera. So.
SANDY: Yeah. Yeah. It is sometimes very easy to be very discouraged by what stuff is popular in this category, and I feel like a book that’s sort of built on the premise that schizophrenia diagnosis equals violence is — is — is popular right now, like it doesn’t terribly surprise me, but the popularity of your book makes me hopeful, right, that people are at least interested in hearing from you, you know what I mean? Like, that I think even — even a couple, maybe a generation or two ago, that’s less the case. But I, you know, that is — that is and isn’t true, you know. You have stuff going back, like I Never Promised You a Rose Garden, you know, so there — there definitely is a long history of that. But yeah, I — I guess I just wondered, you know, when — when I said that stat about the homicide rate, you reacted. What would you like the public to know? Let’s say someone’s listening who’s like, “Oh, I don’t know anything about, you know, schizophrenia and violence, I don’t know what I should think about that.” Like, I know it’s a complicated argument that you’re making in your — in your book, but what would you like people to know when it comes to how we should — how we should think about that?
ESMÉ: Well, I mean, there’s that statistic also about how people with mental illness are [40:00] so much more likely to be victims of violence rather than to perpetrate violence. And — and also just I think something that’s really important is to remember the humanity of people who experience psychosis. I mean, that’s one of the big things that I try to look at in this essay that I wrote called “Toward the Pathology of the Possessed,” which is about how there’s this kind of idea with the schizophrenias that the person who is experiencing the psychosis or the schizophrenias is somehow being possessed, or they’re hollowed out and replaced by something: something evil, something bad, whether it’s actually a demon or something of that nature, or just this scary thing called schizophrenia or psychosis. But whatever it is, it isn’t John, or whoever the person was. It’s — there’s very much the notion of — of what that diagnosis means, and so therefore I think that idea makes the idea of that person committing violence so much more popular. And it doesn’t help that in the — the media, like, whenever somebody with that diagnosis does do something violent, they make sure to mention the diagnosis, as well.
SANDY: Yeah, absolutely, and there’ve been studies about the overrepresentation of people with severe mental illness diagnoses in, you know, local media, whatever, you know, reports about crime. There is a — as you allude, like, there’s an appetite for this. This is popular. And I think it speaks so much to the really limited and ugly imagination that so many people who haven’t had these kinds of experiences have about folks who have, you know? To say that in a complicated way. But there is a — there’s a severe lack of imagination in this space, if — if that makes sense.
ESMÉ: Yes. Yes. And I think it also helps people who are not diagnosed with these things to other the experience because that way, you know, violence can stay far away, it can be a thing that these other people do. It can be, you know, in this other realm. So.
SANDY: Yeah, and — and — and it’s almost, in Dawson’s Creek, it’s, like, almost supernatural, right? The way that they’re doing it. There’s that sequence before where they’ve gone to a carnival and seen a psychic, and when Andie sits down to have her fortune told, the candle blows out and the psychic is like (dramatic sigh) — you know, basically, “I can’t help you.” And it’s supposed to be really, like, ominous, and it’s kind of, like, wow, you know, this is the way that, you know, this show feels comfortable allowing this character’s story to unfold, is it sort of has to be edged with, you know, that horror.
ESMÉ: Yeah, very much so, ‘cause I don’t recall that show particularly dabbling in much of the supernatural or, you know, any other kind of, like, mysticism otherwise.
SANDY: Yeah. It’s, like, only for Andie. Yeah, which I think says a lot, you know? I think says a lot about sort of, like, how the viewers are being asked to see it, which is it’s very othered, it’s very, like, “Oooo,” you know? And — and that — and that’s so common, right? That — that there is this reliance on these, you know, the topic of — of mental illness becomes something that we, you know, center a sort of, like, a scary plot around. And it seems like that in turn, you know, would have a negative effect upon people who are actually struggling and/or actually considering seeking treatment of some kind. If you’ve got these negative stereotypes that are sort of being, like, repeated by both fictional and “nonfictional” media out there.
ESMÉ: Yeah, which I think brings us to an interesting question for me, which is whether watching the storyline about Andie McPhee encouraged me to get help, or —
SANDY: Do you think so?
ESMÉ: — dissuaded me. No, or, dissuaded me from getting help. Or — or if it, you know, if it had some kind of impact in my actual life, like, what was that impact? And I actually — this is a question I’ve never thought about before, and I think, you know, I actually don’t really know. I mean, I know that, you know — as I was saying before, I know that what — I know what the show made me hope for, but I don’t know what it actually made me think about myself. I, you know — I — I didn’t — I knew that I did not have that kind of person in my life, but it also did seem very scary based — I — I think that it did reinforce my ideas [45:00] of, you know, depression and medication and all — the world of entering the mental health kind of — kind of realm, to be very frightening. I think it reinforced all of that for me.
SANDY: I’m curious, the — the description of sort of wanting, you know, a Pacey on the other side of the door is really beautiful, and you have been, and you — you dedicate this book to your — your partner, and you’ve been together for quite a while, and I just wondered, like, you know, young you wanted that sort of support, you know, from somebody — I’m sure there’s many other people in your life, as well, who have shown you love and support through even really difficult times. And, like, is it — does it help, you know? Does having — does having someone like that, you know, make a — make a real difference?
ESMÉ: Yeah. I mean, I think it — it — yes. It does help. I’ve dedicated both of my books to him. It — it — the support system helps. It doesn’t have to be a romantic partner, it doesn’t have to be that kind of person. But there is a lot of research about, you know, for the schizophrenias, but also for different forms of mental illness, that having a support system is really important. And often that’s family, but that can be, you know, found family or chosen family. It can be friends. It — you know, the friends that I have here, where I live, are so important to me. So yeah, in the end, I think I did find what — the thing that I was looking for as I was watching this show.
SANDY: So our last segment on Mad Chat is called what’s helping today, and it’s where we each share something that is helping us today, whatever it is, big or small. Do you want to go first, Esmé? What’s helping today?
ESMÉ: What’s helping today is that I had this to do this morning. I had slept in this morning, and this is basically the first thing that I did. I usually have this whole morning routine and there are all these things that I do in the morning. I actually didn’t write this morning because I was doing this. But I think that having, you know, this podcast to record kind of gave my day this kick — kick-off to kind of settle me in and have my brain going.
SANDY: Well that’s beautiful, thank you. And I’ll — what’s helping today? I wanted to say earlier I was a little nervous for this conversation and I got out some of my nerves by playing piano and singing Rufus Wainwright songs and I’ve been teaching — like, kind of relearning piano after a long absence after the last couple of years, and I — yeah, I’ve just been finding so much joy in singing along with my — my good singing, my bad playing. And so I — I just try to get the playing up to the point of my singing so I can finally get through a song.
[RUFUS WAINWRIGHT PLAYS]
SANDY: Esmé, thank you so much for doing this. I — I had a ball. I’m really grateful to you for taking the time.
ESMÉ: Yeah, thank you so much for having me.
SANDY: Hey listeners. I wanted to quickly tell you about something very exciting that we have coming up, which is we’re launching the Mad Chat Book Club. Watch out, Oprah! So our first book club meeting is gonna be in one week, August 1, 8PM Eastern on the Mad Chat Show Instagram live. I will be leading a book club discussion. We will be talking about The Collected Schizophrenias, of course. I was an English teacher for years, actually, so I really miss diving into a text with a group of smart, engaged people. If you are interested in books, if you’re interested in this book, I really hope you’ll — you’ll show up and participate. Feel free to send us questions ahead of time if you want. You can email us, email@example.com. You can also DM us, we are @madchatshow on Instagram, Twitter, and we’re on Facebook. So yeah — send your questions, come to book club, read The Collected Schizophrenias, of course. Really look forward to seeing you in a week.
[MAD CHAT CREDITS MUSIC]
SANDY: Mad Chat is produced by the one, the only Lee Mengistu. Theme music by Lee Mengistu and her sister Ruthie Williams. Our Social Media and Community Manager is Annie Mok. Do you have opinions? Wanna chat with other listeners about the things we discussed on this episode? Follow us @madchatshow on Twitter and on Instagram, and consider joining our Facebook community. Show transcripts [50:00] by Alex Cornacchia; find those and more resources and recommendations from me at madchatshow.com, where you can also find my recommendations of things to read and other resources related to this episode, and in our awesome newsletter, which you can sign up for there. I’m Sandy Allen, author of A Kind of Mirraculas Paradise: A True Story About Schizophrenia, which should be available wherever you buy or borrow books. More about me at hellosandyallen.com. This is Mad Chat. Thanks for listening. Chat with you again in three weeks.
[MAD CHAT CREDITS MUSIC]
SANDY: Next time on Mad Chat, I’ll be chatting with poet and podcast host, my friend Sarah K., about Killing Eve.
[KILLING EVE THEME MUSIC]
SANDY: Yes! We’re gonna talk about psychopathy and sociopathy and Sarah’s take on empathy. I’m so excited to get into Killing Eve. In the meantime, if you’ve not already, read Sarah’s poetry, watch Killing Eve. What are you doing if you haven’t watched Killing Eve? It’s so hot. I would give Sandra Oh my internal organs, like, if she needed them.