I’ve been waiting to watch Silver Linings Playbook for a while now, and not just because it stars Bradley Cooper, honest. This is a mainstream, successful Hollywood film that deals with the subject of mental illness. It’s unusual, to say the least, to have a fetching male lead as well as the lovely Jennifer Lawrence exploring an issue that makes people so uncomfortable. We’ve had films like Girl, Interrupted and A Beautiful Mind, both based on true stories and showing the destruction mental illness can cause, but SLP is different. Two young and attractive lead characters. A story that has their relationship rather than their illness at the centre. And it has humour. Yes, mental illness can be destructive, but as the film depicts it can also be enlightening, creative, manageable and yes, funny.
All this makes me wonder if mental illness is suddenly… dare I say it… sexy?
You’d be right to question if this is the best way to discuss the subject, but it gives me heart that such a film has been made, awarded an Oscar for Lawrence’s performance, and talked about by the critics and viewing public alike. It means we’ve come a long way in our understanding of mental health problems. Once upon a time, not so long ago, people were forcibly removed from their families and hidden away in institutions, subjected to barbaric treatments and sometimes imprisoned for the rest of their lives. Now we have glossy, sensitive and uplifting films. That’s got to be progress, not just in the treatment of the conditions themselves, but also in the way we treat individuals.
It also gives me heart that I may not have wasted the past three years writing a novel that explores the effect of mental illness on a family (with a thriller plot aimed at young adults). I sometimes get the feeling I don’t choose the subjects I write about, they choose me, but I have to say that even when I started writing this book I felt uneasy. I knew I was taking a risk, and the eight drafts it took to get the story right didn’t do anything to lessen my unease. The fact is that mental illness is the kind of subject matter publishers shy away from. They’ve always been a conservative bunch but recently this has become more obvious, opting for safe books, often with the promise of a series on subjects that already have a following (I’m talking vampires, zombies and werewolves here). Ultimately, it’s all about the bottom line.
But regardless of those niggling little prods that tell me I should be writing something fluffy and fun and commercial, my dark side always wins the day. Mimi Thebo talks very personally about death in her latest post (http://myglamorousliterarylife.wordpress.com), and how we used to see death more openly. When she was a child the elderly carried on living with their families so the inevitable decline was there for everyone to see, and when she was taken to see an open coffin she noticed how ‘undramatic it was, how normal the deceased looked’ (go and read it, she’s great). And she’s right, nowadays we shield our children from such experiences, we put our elderly relatives into a home, pack ourselves off to have some plastic surgery and pretend it will never happen to us.
I think the opposite has happened with mental health over the past few years. It’s still a subject that people find difficult to talk about, not least because it’s difficult to understand, all those genetic influences, neurotransmitters that refuse to behave and random trigger factors, but we do see and hear about it more, whether it’s a friend or neighbour, the person acting differently on the street, or a character in a film, we no longer hide people in dark and dusty institutions and wait for them to die.
Silver Linings Playbook gives me courage. The publishers may be conservative but I’m not, which is why I’m going to resist the urge to spend a small fortune on postage and packaging just to fill up the slush piles. Instead I’m going to publish the novel as an ebook this year under the title The Big Deep. That way it won’t be swallowed up by a dark and dusty institution that wants everyone to be the same, it will be out there, living amongst the people.