Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Madness or Early Death

[Warning: plot spoiler. I can't think of any way to get my point across without giving away the ending of this book.]
I recently got a book called Magic or Madness by Justine Larbalestier. In this story, a girl, Reason Cansino, was living with her mother Sarafina. They were constantly on the run from Sarafina's mother Esmerelda, who according to Sarafina tortured and killed animals and babies in order to do nonexistant magic. Then, when Sarafina has a mental breakdown, Reason is sent to live with her grandmother.
In the course of the book, Reason discovers that magic is real, and that she has magic. If she doesn't use her magic, she will eventually go crazy like her mother and her friend Tom's mother. However, the more magic she uses, the shorter her life expectancy. On a monument to her family, the women listed died at 18, 20, 21, 14, 5, 19, 20, 25, 12, 16, 27, 20 and 48 years old.
The 'madness' that comes from not doing magic in this stories sounds somewhat like schizophrenia. Both Sarafina and Tom's mother tried to hurt themselves and/or others in the episodes that resulted in hospitalization. Tom describes his mother's episode as such:

"'Did she hurt you badly?' asked Reason. 'When she tried to kill you?' She looked concerned, which made Tom squirm. He didn't much enjoy people feeling sorry for him.
'No, Dad got there first. She was waving a knife around saying that she'd kill us. She cut Cathy [his sister], but Dad reckons it was an accident. Cath's got a scar on her shoulder, it's tiny, but.'"

Earlier, he says about her:

"She kept trying to kill herself. Then one time when I was little, she tried to kill me and Cathy too. So she's in Kalder Park now... Mum would never take her meds, ... She thinks they put devils in her head."

Sarafina, too, had had multiple episodes before being hospitalized:

"Sarafina talked to people who weren't there. She insisted we walk in straight lines, for days at a time. Sometimes she got confused, wasn't sure where or who she was. Then I would lead her back to the hotel room or caravan or campsite - wherever it was we were staying - and explain where we were and why and give Sarafina a mathematical or logical problem to solve. She always could. Solving the problem would bring her back. Her episodes never lasted long, and until Dubbo she'd never been scary mad."

In the hospital when Reason visited, Sarafina kept on talking about her mother and acting as if she couldn't hear Reason's replies unless they fit what she wanted to discuss. She didn't give sufficient context for Reason to understand her, so that when she gave Reason directions to find a dead cat hidden in Esmerelda's cellar, Reason thought she was discussing a person. Then Sarafina said "It's not too bad, ... Being insane. It's not too bad at all. There are worse things. It's pretty here."
After thinking about this book, I wondered why anyone would use magic at all. Though clearly the mental illness that results from not using magic is unpleasant, it's clearly better than dying in your teens or twenties. Even the length of time before Sarafina had her breakdown was longer than that, so if you treated mental illness as equivalent to death Sarafina was likely still better off. And as she states, mental illness is not constant unending suffering. She clearly felt it was better than death.
The only way they could justify choosing magic and early death over mental illness is if they view being mentally ill as worse than death. This is an attitude which is not only wrong but very dangerous, because a logical conclusion of the 'better dead than disabled' view is that killing disabled people does them a favour.

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Blogger Deepti Samant Raja said...

Thanks for referring me to this post. I loved the detail in which you've made your argument. I haven't read this book, but you've really brought out the manner in which it depicts mental illness in a deploring way!

I just glanced at the rest of the blog, and am really impressed by the depiction of your observations. Needless to say I'm going to read the rest of your posts as well :)

10:11 AM  

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