Reading Guide: Mental Illness

Landscape of the Mind: Writers Explore Mental Illness

As the field of psychiatry has evolved over the past century, we now hold a much deeper understanding of the biological underpinnings of mental illnesses. Yet, it remains difficult to decipher the anomalies of the mind and to draw a distinct line between the “normal” and “abnormal,” since mental illness covers such a broad range of emotion and behavior. While it is impossible to perfectly capture every individual’s experience with mental illness, literature has served as a creative outlet for us to explore the mind and its maladies.

With the “Landscapes of the Mind” issue, the Bellevue Literary Review set out to share the experiences of those who have been impacted by mental illness but also to explore fundamental questions about human behavior. When do normal and abnormal behaviors intersect? Are the mechanisms of mental illness distinct unto themselves? Or are they, at times, merely a broader expression of our complex personalities? These poems and prose provide a space for considering mental illness and inspire the reader to explore human nature through literature.

Written by: BLR Staff


Fiction

In Lieu of a Better Plan by Elizabeth Downs

  1. Is the narrator reliable? Can we trust her point of view? Why or why not?
  2. The narrator claims that “history is important.” How does what we know of her history influence our reading of the present moment?
  3. What is the significance of intention or lack thereof in the story?
  4. What does the narrator accomplish my imagining herself as Queen Victoria or Pocahontas?
  5. Why do you think the narrator ultimately wants to resign as “Vice President”?
  6. “A disconnect” the doctors tell our narrator of her brain, “as if the matter has been resolved, thoroughly explained.” What, according to the story, is and is not accomplished by diagnosis?
  7. How do you interpret the narrator’s relationship with Barney the orderly?
  8. How does the end of the story, in which the narrator compares the scope of her “catastrophe” to the “sun’s terrible beauty,” affect our reading of the rest of the story?

My Uncle Deserves Chekhov by Robert Treu

  1. What is the significance of Uncle Walter’s lack of diagnosis? How does the family’s knowledge “of diagnostic terms from television and popular magazines” inform their view of him?
  2. What are the parallels between Uncle Walter and the narrator? How does the narrator use his uncle as a barometer for his own normalcy?
  3. The narrator imagines Uncle Walter’s relocation to the Jefferson County Home as an act of defiance: “I’m not crazy. Just old.” Are there other unconventional rebellions in the story?
  4. The last time he visits him, the narrator learns that his uncle routinely writes and burns poetry. How does this image relate to the rest of the story? To the narrator’s profession?
  5. Why do you think the author chose for Mary to have Cerebral Palsy? Why make her significantly younger than Uncle Walter?

“Translation Memory” by Midge Raymond

  1. Why does Dan admire Japanese culture? How does he relate it to his marriage?
  2. How does Julie’s self-medication affect Dan?
  3. What is translation memory? Why does this remind him of the day he met Julie?
  4. What do you think is gained from Dan and Julie’s visit to the Zozo-ji? Lost?
  5. Dan says that his and Julie’s memories are at best “a fuzzy match.” What about their present? Their future? How do and don’t they match up?

Born on Sunday by Mark Rigney

  1. In this story, it is the doctor rather than the patient whose life apparently hangs in the balance. What is achieved by this inversion?
  2. How do you interpret the self-medication of the other Peace Corps doctors Claude works with?
  3. What role do language and translation play in this story?
  4. The soldier tells Claude that in his culture, the dead are believed to be reincarnated in their family members. How does this belief affect Claude’s relationship to his own family?
  5. “You believe as the missionaries do,” the soldier tells Claude. What is the effect of the soldier’s conflation of these scientific and religious perspectives?
  6. What is the significance of the butterfly motif in the story?

“The Demon” by Hasanthika Sirisena

  1. How does the knowledge of the artificial fangs affect the reader’s sense of Ganesh’s illness?
  2. This is a story about multiple generations. How do you see those generations relating to one another? What are the strongest and weakest relationships within the family?
  3. What is the significance of Shila’s time in the United States?
  4. What is the role of Emily, the American tourist who photographs Ganesh?
  5. There are two conflicting approaches to illness in the story; Ranji favors an exorcist, a “kattadiya,” while Shila recommends Ganesh see a doctor. How do these two ideologies differ? How are they alike?
  6. Why do you think Ranji sends Shila to Colombo at the end of the story?

“The Room of Small Gods” by Paula V. Smith

  1. Speaking to the ancient figurines who “have no voice to explain what you are,” the narrator claims that Freud “assembled a library to interpret you” How does this mirror Freud’s professional life?
  2. What does the narrator’s comment that the figurines hear “the same few secrets” insinuate about human emotion? About Freud?
  3. Why do you think the narrator addresses his subject in the second person?
  4. What is the significance of Freud’s relocation to England during this period?
  5. As “figures impervious to disease,” how do the figurines frame Freud’s illness?
  6. What is Anna’s role in the piece?

“World’s Fair” by Kathleene Donahoo

  1. What is Betty’s relationship to her parents? Describe their presence in the story.
  2. How does the narrator compare herself to Anita? How are they different?
  3. Why do you think Betty and Ralph’s baby remains unnamed?
  4. How do you interpret Betty’s interest in magazines?
  5. What is the significance of the dinner party Ralph asks Betty about?
  6. Why do you think this story is set at the World’s Fair?

“Lake Charles” by Jim Tomlinson

  1. Though their mother wants Randy to audition for the movie role, it’s Ben who gets the part. How does this interchangeability of the brothers affect our reading of what we learn later in the story?
  2. Describe the role of music in this story.
  3. This story includes a lot of references to entertainment and entertainers. Why do you think that is?
  4. What is the significance of the rabbit? The broken legs after a “pure headshot”?
  5. How does Ben feel about his mother? How does he remember her?
  6. Randy tells Kit that he works at a radio station, though leaves out that he is the janitor. He tells her that Ben is an actor, though he is now a welder. What do these half-truths tell us about Randy?
  7. Why does Ben think he can’t leave? Why does he leave Kit after they kiss?

“Crackers” by Alex Bartel

  1. Compare Corinne and Sophia’s respective reactions to Arthur’s behavior.
  2. How do Sophia’s feelings towards her father change throughout the story?
  3. Explain the significance of symmetry and order in the story.
  4. What is Aunt Lenore’s role in the story?
  5. Why do you think Sophia makes the choice she does at the end?
  6. In what way do many of the character’s feelings remain unspoken? Why?

“Lost Souls’ Journey” by Dina Greenberg

  1. What is the effect of the alternating narrators?
  2. How are the two narrators aware of one another? How do their narratives interact?
  3. How does the story of the baby bird inform Carlton’s character?
  4. What role does the concept of being “normal” play in the character’s lives?
  5. How does 9/11, a national crisis, impact the two narrator’s respective personal crises? What is the effect of this juxtaposition of scope?
  6. Explain how safety/security is important to the characters.
  7. What role does Judaism play in the story?

“Nobody Walks” by Sarah Hong

  1. How is home an important concept within the story?
  2. How does Susie’s hurting herself shape her relationship with John?
  3. Why does Susie go for walks?
  4. Consider the story’s various settings: Vancouver, Dallas, Korea, and Hawaii. How does setting affect the overall narrative?
  5. How is heat a theme within the story? What does it represent for Susie?
  6. How does Frank Kim transform into Kim, Jin Young? How does this relate to Susie’s transformation?

“Where Our Paths Run” by Kim Puckett

  1. How has Christine become like Vivi? What are the parallels in their lives?
  2. What did the age difference between Christine and Vivi mean in the past? What does it mean to Christine now?
  3. In what ways was Vivi’s funeral a reflection of her life?
  4. Explain why breasts are an important theme in the piece.
  5. What did growing up mean for Vivi? For Christine?
  6. Why do you think Christine didn’t visit Vivi while she was in her coma?
  7. How does the way Vivi died compare to Christine’s descriptions of her in her youth?
  8. Why is Nurse Soledad such a comfort to Christine while she’s in the hospital?

“Brother’s Keeper” by Ami Sands Brodoff

  1. Describe the relationship between Adán and Joaquín. How are they alike? Different?
  2. Explain how the rotting fruit is representative of Joaquín.
  3. In what ways have the brothers’ roles been reversed since childhood? In what ways have they remained the same?
  4. What does home mean to Adán? How does Joaquín’s stagnation at La Fundación impact this?
  5. What does Katie represent to Adán? How does Joaquín see this?
  6. Explain the significance of the sea turtles in the story.
  7. How does the author use Spanish to give depth to the characters? What part does nationalism play in the story?

Nonfiction

“Restaurant” by Peter Selgin

  1. Describe the relationship between Peter and his father. How does Peter characterize their relationship with the flashback to his childhood game of “Restaurant,” and how does this characterization change throughout the story?
  2. There are many mentions about the food the characters eat (frankfurters, orange marmalade on toast, soft-boiled eggs, etc). Explain the significance of food in this story.
  3. In the scene where Peter and his father go swimming, how do the descriptions of his father’s physical appearance contribute to later events?
  4. Peter says that after his father had a stroke, “the verbal world was like a closet filled with suitcases, all without handles, items he could not grasp.” How does he eventually recover his ability to use language, and what role does Peter play in the process?
  5. How did Peter’s childhood game of “Restaurant” play into figuring out the “mathematical riddle” of feeding his weakened father? In what ways was he “playing the same game”?
  6. How did the “game” change, and how did Peter’s behavior change in playing the role of waiter?

Iambic Pentameter and the Meter of War” by Diane Cameron

  1. Discuss why the author chose to start the story with the murder of Donald’s former wife and mother-in-law but only briefly returns to the incident at the end of the story.
  2. The narrator never explicitly says that Donald committed the murders, though her actions suggest that she believes he is guilty. What is the effect of keeping the truth about what happened unclear?
  3. Besides the formal report of Donald’s former life and murder before marrying the narrator’s mother, the author does not provide many other details about his character that would incite empathy in readers. How does the distance between readers and Donald contribute to the story?
  4. How does Robert Bly’s speech affect the narrator’s perspective on war and, more specifically, the experiences of the marines in China? What connection does she draw between iambic pentameter and war?
  5. How does Frenchy stand out as different from Donald and the other marines the narrator corresponded with?
  6. What does the narrator see as Donald’s gift to her?

By My Own Hand by Anita Darcel Taylor

  1. Why does the narrator open with an anecdote about how she learned the word, melancholy? Why does the word end up having such a great impact on her?
  2. The narrator wonders whether she truly has bipolar disorder or if she is merely choosing to live more deeply. In what ways does she evaluate her behavior, and what conclusion does she come to?
  3. Explain the narrator’s reaction to Kay Redfield Jamison’s writing and how she applies his ideas to herself.
  4. Consider what the narrator means when she says, “Suicide is not a selfish, deliberate act of cruelty against loved ones; it is a frantic final act against continued anguish.” What is her reason for believing suicide is sometimes the most rational decision?
  5. The narrator takes different precautions to prevent herself from impulsively committing suicide, such as returning her father’s carving knife to her mother. What does this suggest about her thoughts on death? What is her “earned choice”?
  6. Explain why the narrator believes that suicide is a tool in her possession.

“Pushing the Geriatric Envelope” by Ralph Crawshaw

  1. In what ways has the narrator’s view of himself changed over time?
  2. At the art supply store, the narrator has his first experience with physical failure due to old age, yet his health is not what bothers him most. As he is reflecting on the incident, what is it that concerns him most and why?
  3. Consider the descriptions of the narrator in the hospital. What does the tone suggest about how he perceives himself in this situation?
  4. Explain the significance of the narrator’s dream and why he says that waking up frightened is preferable to waking up terrified.
  5. At the end of the story, the narrator admits that though he has been trained to care for frightened people, he is now that “particular frightened human being.” Is he accepting of his own fear? Why or why not?

“…But My Heart is Indian” by Itzhak Kronzon

  1. Why does the narrator feel so much affection toward and admiration for Raj Kapoor?
  2. What similarities does the author find between Israel and India? How do they play into his self-identity?
  3. When the narrator encounters Kapoor years later as an adult, he is struck by the former star’s physical appearance. How has Kapoor changed and does this impact the narrator’s ideas of him? Why or why not?
  4. Consider why the author chooses to end the story with a brief history of Kapoor’s life.
  5. When the narrator visits India, he is reminded of the young Kapoor. How does this affect his behavior and how he views India?

Poetry

“After Electro−Convulsive Therapy” by Elizabeth Hazen

  1. How does the format of the poem reflect the speaker’s mental and emotional state of mind?
  2. The speaker begins in the third person, then moves to the first person, then returns to the third person. What is the effect of this shifting?
  3. What is the overall tone of the poem?
  4. What images does the speaker use? What impression does the speaker leave you with?
  5. How do you interpret the structure or format of the poem?
  6. What is the speaker trying to say about electro−convulsive therapy?

Escape by Susan Donnelly

  1. Ron’s wife is referred to throughout as “she.” How is her baby identified? How does this identification change?
  2. How does time operate in this poem? Where is the speaker in time? The action?
  3. How do you interpret the poem’s title?
  4. The poem concludes that she “left no note.” Does the poem operate as a stand-in for that note? How so?

“What You Know” by Blas Falconer

  1. Who is the man in a white shirt and jeans in the beginning of the poem?
  2. How do you interpret the phrase “silence making him more than he could ever be?” Does the poem counteract that silence? What does the poem make “him” into?
  3. What does the speaker mean when he says, “I knew, even while he slept, I did not know him?”
  4. Why does the poem end with “I know he was crushing him?” Who is he referring to?
  5. Why are there questions in between the stanzas? Why are they questions instead of statements?

In the Briars by Colleen McKee

  1. Describe the speaker. How does she describe herself?
  2. What is the significance of memory in this poem? Of forgetting?
  3. Compare the speaker’s depictions of her inner and outer physicality.
  4. How does place factor into this story?
  5. How do you interpret the narrator’s being “locked out?”

“Nicknames” by R.G. Cantalupo

  1. The poem has three stanzas: two short ones at the beginning and end, and a long one in between. What is the effect of this structure?
  2. What is the relationship between home and identity in this story?
  3. What is the speaker’s perception of his own nickname?
  4. What does the repetition of the words “Was. Is. Was” mean?
  5. How has the speaker’s perception of Jenkins changed since learning his name?
  6. What do you think is the significance of nicknames in wartime?

Thanksgiving: Visiting My Brother on the Ward by Peter Schmitt

  1. What is the speaker’s relationship to his brother? To the other members of his family?
  2. What is the significance of Thanksgiving in this story? Why do you think it is set at this time?
  3. How does the speaker see his brother in the context of the “psychotics and depressives?” Is he one of them? Or separate?
  4. How do you interpret the speaker’s comparison of his brother to a “foreign dignitary?”
  5. Where is “home” in this poem? What is it like?
  6. How does the poem end? Has the tone shifted since the beginning? 

“Noon Dark” by June Stein

  1. What does the format of the poem, along with the enjambment of the lines, allow the speaker the freedom to do?
  2. How does the speaker mark the passage of time?
  3. What is the significance of change in this poem?
  4. Why does each stanza except the third end with a question?
  5. What do most of the images the speaker describes have in common?
  6. What is the speaker’s tone?

“On January 24th by Lauren K. Alleyne

  1. Why is January 24th significant?
  2. What is the tone of the poem?
  3. How does the format of the poem and enjambment help create the poem’s tone?
  4. What is the significance of the light motif in this poem?
  5. How does time operate in this poem? How is it marked?

“After Lightning, I Dream of Abrigette” by Aracelis Girmay

  1. Who is Abrigette? What has happened to her?
  2. Who or what is the “it” the speaker is constantly referring to? What is the effect of its personification?
  3. What is the effect of most of poem’s lines being questions?
  4. What is the author trying to say about death?
  5. How does the last line of the poem change the tone?

Viewing Frida Kahlo’s The Suicide of Dorothy Hale by Virginia Chase Sutton

  1. Who is the subject of the poem? Are there more than one or do the two subjects become one? How does the author do this?
  2. What does the painting represent to the speaker? Why is the speaker so intrigued by it?
  3. What does the speaker mean when she says, “Death is eerily internal not merely the corpse someone stumbles over in the dark?”
  4. How does time operate in this poem?
  5. How does the poem’s end inform its earlier sections?
  6. How is the speaker’s death reminiscent of the painting itself?

“A Widow at 93” by Andrew Merton

  1. What does “surviving” mean to the speaker?
  2. What is the significance of language as a motif in this poem?
  3. How does the author create the tone of the poem? Does it change from its beginning to end?
  4. What is the effect of the italicized words in the poem? Why are they structured as such?

“Overblown” by Hal Sirowitz

  1. What is the effect of having two speakers in this poem: the omniscient speaker and the therapist?
  2. Describe the therapists’ voice. How does this set the tone of the poem?
  3. Who has authority in the poem? Whose diagnosis is considered legitimate?
  4. Do you think this poem is a critique? If so, what is it critiquing?
  5. How do you interpret the poem’s conclusion?