Book Review: On Being Insane: In Search of my Missing Pieces by Elliot Gavin Keenan
Goodreads Description: After being diagnosed with Asperger's Disorder at age seven, Elliot becomes fascinated with the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (the Bible of American psychiatry) and its enumeration, categorization, and systematization of innate human differences. This specialized knowledge of the DSM's rules and codes comes in handy as Elliot struggles through multiple psychiatric hospitalizations for severe bipolar depression, but his dreams of being a clinical psychologist seem ever further out of reach until a kindly professor and autism scientist termed herein as Dr. Pinball takes notice of his abilities. This is a story of one young man's searching: for sanity, for stability, and for the people who understand. They may be found in unlikely places.
My Review: Books like this are so hard to explain for me. They are about everything and nothing, about something so personal and at the same time universal, that it makes pinning down exactly what the book is about difficult. On Being Insane is a memoir of the author's experience of growing up with autism and how that affected his journey towards a career in mental health. But there's so much more going on than just that. Keenan is transgender, has bipolar disorder as well as autism, and deals with multiple hospitalizations. He asks some big questions, like whether or not people with mental illnesses can actually work as mental health professionals, which he approaches with such a raw honesty and sincerity that it tugs at the heartstrings.
As far as the linear progression of the book, it can be sometimes hard to follow, as the author jumps around in the timeline a bit in a way that made it easy to lose track of what happened when. The book isn't written as a straight dirty details, tell-all kind of memoir, and instead focuses on the feelings of events rather than explaining the full situation. Even his goodbye scene with JS, who is a major character and influence in his life, left me a little confused as to what happened between them that made them part ways. I can understand the artistic intent around shying away from the details and focusing on feeling, and in a lot of ways it works really well, so I am a little torn. I do feel that a little more information and clarification could have gone a long way.
As for the writing itself... wow! The book is so beautifully written, and filled with such poignant observations that I was often writing down passages in my quote book. Even with the non-linear narrative, his message comes through loud and clear, and we're given a hopeful look at life with mental illness. All the parts of it come together in such a beautiful way, from all the characters portrayed to the descriptive observations and use of metaphor, such as the descriptions of the fake grass outside the hospital. The pieces compound into a really great look into what it feels like to live with autism, which I think would make this an awesome read for anyone interested in/works with mental illness, has autism, or wants to gain a little more insight into what life with a disorder is like.
All in all, this was a really beautiful book that has forged its own place in my heart. I can't exactly articulate what about it is so wonderful, other than while reading it, I just kept thinking, "Me too, me too, me too..."
TL;DR: 4/5 stars. An incredibly heartfelt memoir of Keenan's life with autism and his journey towards working in the mental health field.