I come from a family of people with disabilities, mental illnesses, and substance use; but, as Judith Snow put it so clearly: "Disability is natural," and that means the human family naturally encompasses all of these facets of the brain and body. Still, it seems storytelling in general, and fiction specifically, struggles to break away from related stereotypes.
"Defects," both mental and physical, have served fiction endlessly since the time of Sophocles and the story of Ajax in the 5th century BC. In fact, the story of Ajax has recently been brought to American military bases to illustrate the naturalness of post-traumatic stress disorder, and to encourage dialogue about, and reduce the stigma of, mental illness. Elsewhere, in nonfiction, specifically journalism, and only recently (May 2013) has the Associated Press added an entry specific to mental illness to the AP Stylebook, stating: "It is the right time to address how journalists handle questions of mental illness in coverage. When is such information relevant to a story? Do not assume that mental illness is a factor in a violent crime, and verify statements to that effect. A past history of mental illness is not necessarily a reliable indicator. Studies have shown that the vast majority of people with mental illness are not violent, and experts say most people who are violent do not suffer from mental illness."
However, the genre fiction shelves are not lacking in this regard either, often relying on the very derogatory terms (insane, depressive, multiple personalities, or deranged) that the AP Stylebook urges journalists to avoid; even some of our most treasured literary fiction writers come up short in this regard. Should we issue these same kinds of AP dictates to writers of fiction? Most certainly we should not; creative writing doesn’t hold to the same ethical standards of journalism, or the mandated rules guiding proper reference codes; yet we can consider specific fictional texts to analyze how successful the illusory world has been created, and if indeed a reliance on clichéd writing in regards to characters with supposed disabilities and mental illnesses has weakened the overall fictional dream. The fiction writer should be concerned with trite writing, with the ideas, scenes, characters, and plots that produce unimaginative prose. This risk of writing from a reliance on "templates of deficit" is the basis for much of how we perceive "otherness" in storytelling, which can leave us with bland caricatures, and even bias and bigotry. Perhaps Andreea Ritivoi puts it best: "...crystallized into plots that act as a readily available, pre-formed narrative skeleton easily brought to bear on stories, master plots bestow legitimacy upon beliefs, practices, institutions, and identities."
These templates of deficit do what all reductive prototypes do: they diminish a character to a one-dimensional, preconceived caricature, forcing a reader to simply accept the template.
Adam Haslett from his collection, You Are Not a Stranger Here, embodies the opposite, and embraces authentic storytelling, and he does it with nary a label. In the well-known story, "Notes to My Biographer", we meet—in first-person narration—seventy-three year old Franklin Singer, who proclaims: "The mental health establishment can go screw itself on a barren hilltop in the rain
" Haslett doesn’t allow the reader to fall back on a diagnostic label, and instead creates in Franklin a complex and maddening man determined to remind the world of his genius. Franklin calmly states that the psychiatric establishment has redefined eccentricity as illness, yet in the author’s capable hands (because he is aware of the triteness alive in fiction regarding mental illness) we don’t see Franklin as completely lucid (though he believes he is). Rather, we observe him developing inside the fictional dream, and become more and more of a character in relation to his interactions with others. Indeed, we even see Franklin as exasperating, because he himself is not aware of his impact on others. However, if a different writer were at the helm, one much less aware of writing that springs from templates of deficit, the character of Franklin would be created through the lens of his condition or diagnosis and/or clichéd symptomatology.
I write often about my family and myself, sometimes in memoir, or as in my short story, "Manhood in the Veal Barns of the Hoosier Tundra", just barely cloaked in fiction. I adore writing that doesn’t label, and I try my hardest to do the same.