Figuring it out

Novel, "Fig" takes a unique perspective on mental illness

Story by Anna Cannon, feature editor

Society’s definition of mental illness too often coincides with weakness; those with an illness are considered at fault for their condition, which is no excuse for not being yourself or not being there for the people who care about you. This idea has led to ostracism, prejudice, or even hate of people with depression, schizophrenia, or the like. “Fig” by Sarah Elizabeth Schantz turns this definition on its head with its portrayal of what mental illness can actually do to a family.

“Fig” is about a young girl living in rural Kansas, in a small, prejudiced town full of people quite unlike herself and her family. When Fig, the main character of the novel, is 6, her mother is diagnosed with schizophrenia. The book chronicles Fig’s life as her mother falls deeper into her illness, eventually ending up in a psychiatric ward. The whole time, Fig tries to find ways to cure her mother, although understandably, there is no way for her to do it.

As Fig grows up, she falls into depression as every attempt to make her mother better fails. The lengths she will go to highlight the impossible depths of daughterly love, even as her mother begins to slip away. It also teaches an important lesson: if you destroy yourself while trying to help someone else, nothing you can do will make things better for anyone.

Naturally, one could assume that a story about the ordeals of a young girl with a mentally ill mother could make for an incredibly sad 400 pages. Albeit sad, the storyline is phenomenal, even if it may be exaggerated. While some of the events described by the book (hopefully) wouldn’t happen in real life, they definitely add to the overall meaning.

The quality of Schantz’s writing is phenomenal as well. The story starts when the narrator is 6 years old, and Schantz writes with the naive, youthful script of a 6-year-old child. As the book continues, her writing matures, until a 19-year-old narrator has ended the story on an incredibly sad note.

The main takeaway from the novel, however, would not be the story or the writing; rather, it is the lesson the reader learns and a new awareness of the difficulties that families suffering from mental illness face. Often, mental patients are written off as ‘crazy,’ or not even thought about at all. “Figmakes you realize that these patients are people with families who may still depend on them, rather than numbers on a spreadsheet. It also makes you acknowledge that mental illness is real. Often, people don’t consider disorders of the mind to be a real medical problem––“Fig” challenges this perception as well.

“Fig” is definitely not a book for someone who isn’t ready to think and possibly change their definition of mental illness. But for the reader who is, go right ahead. Just keep a box of tissues nearby.