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Lockdown literature: humour and mental ill-health

My 99-word story for the recent flash fiction collection, a new way to office, is about as social worker’s unease about office humour. Was it derogatory? Disrespectful of the clients? Or was it an essential part of the professionals’ toolkit, a barricade against burnout for those dealing daily with distress?

I cheated when I turned in my story. I used a character and situation from my new novel, Matilda Windsor Is Coming Home. The topic drew me because, like my character, I’m currently preoccupied with the role of humour in the book itself.

Humour and delusion

Matilda Windsor Is Coming Home is about a brother and sister, separated for fifty years, and the ardent young social worker who seeks to reunite them. What has kept them apart for decades? Will they reconnect?

My novel is set in a long-stay psychiatric hospital and a seventy-year-old patient is the star. Matty perceives the world differently to those around her: Ghyllside is a country estate, the nurses are servants, her fellow patients are houseguests and the psychiatrists are journalists researching stories about a society heiress.

I didn’t intend to write a comical novel. In fact, I cringed when Matty turned out to be funny. Mental disturbance is no laughing matter. People given a psychiatric diagnosis are too often the butt of jokes. Yet I couldn’t find any other way around it if Iwanted Matty to be both good company and authentically mentally ill.

Humour and dementia

Until reminded in a recent interview (see above), I’d forgotten I had a model for Matty in Emma Healey’s beautiful debut, Elizabeth Is Missing. Eighty-one-year-old Maud is a decade older than Matty, and is diagnosed with dementia rather than schizophrenia, but both characters contain a similar blend of poignancy, humour and tragedy.

Dementia renders the ordinary unfamiliar. Names of people and everyday objects are forgotten; life becomes a mystery to be solved. This aspect of the condition is beautifully played out in the novel as Maud attempts to resolve the dual mysteries of the sudden absence of her good friend, Elizabeth, as well as the disappearance of her elder sister in her 1940s childhood. If you haven’t read Elizabeth Is Missing, I urge you to give it a try.

I’m reassured to imagine the ghost of Maud lodged within my laptop in the years I toiled on Matilda Windsor Is Coming Home. Of course, there were other influences, but none with the same kind of humour. But I’ve read a couple in the space between turning in my manuscript and publication. If you didn’t think mental ill-health could be both funny and serious, get hold of these and think again.

Humour and depression

As the world prepares to see out 2008 with a party, forty-year-old New York writer, Bunny, is clinically depressed. If she wasn’t, it would be a fine excuse to opt out of dinner with her husband and two other couples at a pretentious restaurant, followed by a party hosted by people she hates. But one of the paradoxes of depression is that those who are prone to it often aren’t very good at taking care of themselves, and they’re especially bad at taking care of themselves when they need it most. So despite her husband’s best efforts to dissuade her, despite not having had the energy to wash for a week, Bunny is determined to go. And where does that determination take her? Seeing in the New Year on a psychiatric ward.

It’s hard to write honestly about depression without sucking the reader into the mire; Rabbits for Food by Binnie Kirshenbaum must be the best fictional representation I’ve read.

Humour and hearing voices

Tom doesn’t expect life to be easy; it’s more important to follow true path. Single, jobless and reliant on benefits, he prioritises abstinence, spreading kindness, and devotion to his god. For twenty years he’s trod the tightrope between sanity and madness, with those who police the boundary as much a hindrance as a help. When the novel opens, Tom is under pressure from both his sister and his care coordinator to participate in a drug trial, for a substance initially developed to treat athlete’s foot. His psychiatrist refuses to prescribe the only medication Tom deems effective but, in the British mental health system, the patient’s assessment of his own well-being is often overruled.

Jasper Gibson was inspired to research and write The Octopus Man after the death of a family member who had a schizophrenia diagnosis. In my work as a clinical psychologist, I met many people like Tom. They also had a love-hate relationship with voices that would both protect and persecute. They felt a similar ambivalence about their dependence on a service system that defined their cherished beliefs as insane. They experienced the daily humiliation of underperforming, and being patronised by care staff who were younger, and/or less intelligent, than them.

But this is a novel, not a case study. It’s a beautifully written and absorbing story, narrated by an unusual character who is as lyrical communing with nature as he is conversing with his personal god. I strongly recommend it for its compassion and humour, and, most of all, and in every sense, for the voice.

Which – if any – of these novels takes your fancy? Can you recommend any that portray mental ill-health authentically and with humour?

Anne Goodwin is a clinical psychologist turned author who writes entertaining fiction about identity, mental health and social justice. She is the author of three novels and a short story collection with small independent press Inspired Quill. Anne posts about reading and writing on her blog Annecdotal.


  1. restlessjo says:

    It’s a fascinating subject, Anne, and one that strikes a bit too close to home on occasion. There’s often a nagging doubt in my mind if I’m tripping off down the dementia path. I would read all of these…though not one after the other, in case I convince myself 🙂 🙂

    • I know what you mean about being too close for comfort. I’m hoping they get the treatments for dementia sorted before it hits me. I keep reassuring myself my word-finding difficulties are down to an overly busy brain.

    • Charli Mills says:

      If, when, dementia unlocks my brain for public review, I will entertain! Just think of all the stories an imaginative writer stores away. Will I remember which ones are memories and which ones are inventions? 😉

      I was reading recently that women forget words and such because of the changes in our hormones. Often what we fear is dementia is simply the fog of receding estrogen. Cheers to growing older with grace and humor!

      • Didn’t know that about hormones, Charli. Will tell a friend who particularly worries about going the way of her mother.

        Oh dear, I have trouble differentiating memories from imaginings as it is … although there’s research that says we all do under certain conditions.

  2. floridaborne says:

    I don’t argue there are people who can’t cope with the world and need a sheltered place to live. I’ve known too many people whose early wounds (mental and physical) and war-torn minds have rendered him/her unable to cope with life.

    It’s the definition of mental illness that I have problems accepting.

    I have often said that anyone born on Earth is mentally ill, some moreso than others. The moment we’re born, we’re squeezed into a culturalization box. It can be both mentally and physically painful.

    The misdiagnosed are legion. Many people with hypothyroid were mistaken with depression. If you have Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis, it can be mistaken for bi-polar disorder. It wasn’t until the end of the 20th century that medical causes were ruled out first. People who are going through the stages of grief are treated as if it’s a form of depression instead of a natural process that can be prolonged when disrupted.

    One part of the world believes people who don’t follow their “true faith” are insane. At one time, people with schizophrenia were considered prophets. Another part of the world believes the “feeling” of being another sex outweighs the science.

    People who vilify or make fun of those they consider insane need to take a good, hard look in the mirror; for someone, somewhere in the world would probably consider him/her insane.

    • Thanks for adding that perspective. I totally agree that psychiatric diagnosis is all to often a form of Othering and can create a false dichotomy between ‘sane’ and ‘insane’. Even now, when mental ill-health is less stigmatised, it can be used to pathologise the stress of living in a crazy world.

      I chose these books because they use humour without making fun of the characters, although not every reader will agree with me.

      • floridaborne says:

        Humor is the salve covering the wounds of truth that lessen the sting.

        I watched a comedy routine by someone with Tourette’s and laughed the whole time. All his points were true, and well delivered. I didn’t feel so alone in the world.

  3. TanGental says:

    Elizabeth is missing was one of the great reads of 2019 for me; it was absorbing, funny and poignant in equal measure. If yours is in the same territory Anne (and I’m on the cusp of finding out!) then you’ve done well. I will have to earmark the other two, too.

  4. Norah says:

    That photo of you holding Matilda Windsor is gorgeous, Anne. You look both delighted with and proud of your book. And so you should. It is an entertaining, if uncomfortable in places, read. Matty is endearing, Janice is a treasure (I think she is a meliorist – she believes she can change the world, for Matty at least) and Henry is a total confusion.
    I really enjoyed your interview with Boxofficegirl. I think she mentioned ‘sliding doors’. I’m not so sure if it’s sliding doors or world’s colliding – or not. The conversation between the two of you helped me appreciate other facets of you novel I may have missed without the insights. I recommend it to all readers – perhaps after reading your novel, which I am happy to recommend.
    Of the other three, I’ve added Elizabeth is Missing to my list. It has been recommended so many times. If I haven’t read it yet, I really must.
    Congratulations on your third great novel.

    • Thanks, Norah, I was quite pleased with the latest batch of non-professional photos. (And with my book’s reception.)
      I agree, Janice is a meliorist, but is she deluded?
      I’m glad you enjoyed the interview. Tracey is so skilled at bringing out the different facets of the book. The day we recorded that I had another for digital radio, so I was on a roll.
      I think you’ll like EIM. Maud is so sweet.

      • Norah says:

        Deluded? Good question. Maybe. Or are her plans thwarted simply by a chain of unfortunate events, many of which could have had quite different outcomes with just a few seconds more, or less?
        Two interviews in one day. You were on a roll. I hope it continues.

    • Charli Mills says:

      Norah, I enjoy seeing Ann in her happy polka dots, releasing Matilda!

  5. Charli Mills says:

    Great post and book recommendations, Anne. Humor can put readers at ease to accept difficult ideas or experiences. No wonder authors have used it to coax acceptance and empathy for mental illness. Oh, I loved Elizabeth is Missing, but Matilda is still my favorite character with an altered reality. I also love your sharpened bio line: “Anne Goodwin is a clinical psychologist turned author who writes entertaining fiction about identity, mental health and social justice.” That’s good branding, bringing together your experience and themes as an author.

  6. Chel Owens says:

    Interestingly enough, I’ve only heard of mental conditions as ‘mental health.’ You live, you learn.

    For me, personally, I can’t possibly get through life without humor. A therapist of mine would chasten my levity in serious situations sometimes, but I realize she didn’t see how deeply I took the subjects; instead, she assumed I didn’t delve and merely laughed. Au contraire.

    I therefore think your descriptions sound workable. Otherwise, the reader’s got only tragedy on her hands and is not likely to enjoy the book as well.

    • You’re right, Chel, it’s normally referred to as mental health, but it always strikes me as odd. I recall a very fragile client who used to say she had ‘mental health’ when she meant the opposite. Mental illness is also widely used, although less so nowadays, but I’m not comfortable with the term ‘illness’ as it implies a biological cause.

      It’s a pity your therapist couldn’t acknowledge the humour AND the serious side. We laugh at life for so many reasons.

      And yes re my novel, a few readers have remarked that the humour is necessary to tolerate the tragedy.

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

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