Visiting the unsafe: The bibliotherapeutic potential of literature about mental illness

Simpson, Fionnula
Bibliotherapy – broadly defined as the use of reading material to promote personal development and emotional growth – is centered around the notion that literature can have a positive influence on the lives of readers. Although some bibliotherapists argue against the use of potentially distressing texts in bibliotherapy, there is evidence to suggest that literature which directly confronts mental health issues can have a cathartic or therapeutic effect on readers by allowing them to “visit the unsafe”. This thesis therefore explores fictional and (semi)autobiographical texts about mental illness through a bibliotherapeutic lens, positing the idea that reading about mentally ill protagonists could facilitate bibliotherapeutic dialogue. In order to explore this hypothesis, I align the three core stages of bibliotherapy as identified by Caroline Shrodes – identification, catharsis, and insight – with three strands of literary criticism, which are applied to the following texts: Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar (1963), Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1962), Shirley Jackson’s Hangsaman (1951), and Susanna Kaysen’s Girl, Interrupted (1993). Firstly, this thesis explores how each of the core texts depict mentally ill protagonists who are stigmatised and marginalised as a direct result of their mental illness, which, I argue, could facilitate identification among readers experiencing mental health issues. Next, I examine the literary techniques which elucidate the protagonists’ inner experience of their mental illness and which contribute towards the formation of a consistent stylistic pattern known as mind style. I argue that analysis of mind style could assist the reader with attaining insight during bibliotherapy and could, moreover, help therapists and readers to collaborate in forming a shared language which communicates difficult feelings. Finally, I enquire into the ways in which mentally ill protagonists seek catharsis and recovery by analysing episodes of laughter, self-harm, suicidality, and storytelling within the texts. The thesis concludes that the core texts have therapeutic potential and communicate realities pertaining to lived experiences of mental illness.
NUI Galway
Publisher DOI
Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Ireland