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Book Review: The Centre Cannot Hold by Elyn Saks

The Centre Cannot Hold book cover

“I spent the next hour or so laughing and singing and gibbering away on the roof of Yale Law School. I found several feet of loose telephone wire up there, and made myself a kind of belt.”

The memoir The Centre Cannot Hold charts the life of Professor Elyn Saks, a professor of law and psychiatry at the Southern California Gould School of Law who suffers the most debilitating form of schizophrenia.

Schizophrenia has controlled Saks since she was 8 years old when houses began talking to her and controlling her thoughts. From Oxford to Yale Law School to her tenure as a law school professor, living a normal life was not possible. Even writing a simple case memo (in Australia, a case note) would send her into a full-blown schizophrenic attack that left her singing on the rooftop of the library, “Come to the Florida lemon tree! Come to Florida sunshine bush! Where are my lemons?”

Her life was constantly interrupted by hospitalisations where she would be bound by leather straps to keep her from moving and force fed anti-psychosis medication through her gritted teeth. Sometimes she would be left strapped for days. It was experiences like these, which are interweaved through out the book, which challenged her to return to studying law to help others in her situation. Saks is now a professor specialising in mental health law and criminal law, and her works have influenced courts' perceptions of people suffering from mental illness.

The juxtaposition of her experiences as a mental patient to her work as a lawyer representing the mentally ill draws out a lesson in empathy. Her writing also poses difficult questions such as “Would you go to a lawyer with a history of schizophrenia”? Or “should someone with multiple personalities be charged with murder if only one of the personalities were responsible”? These questions have become increasingly relevant to us in the legal sphere as every one in one hundred people will be diagnosed with schizophrenia and many more will be diagnosed with a form of mental illness. It is also important to the legal community where it is well documented that lawyers struggle with above average rates of depression. Knowing and understanding depression and other mental illnesses will reduce the associated stigma and encourage the community to support those who are struggling.

Relevance aside, it is also a highly enjoyable read. Saks’s writing is engrossing; I read the book cover to cover without putting it down. It pulls you into the terrors and fears of a schizophrenic attack but it also answers questions about mental illness that you always wanted to ask but never could. It also touches at the difficulty of law study and the constant pressure to succeed, to have marks to give you a clerkship or to work for a big firm in the city.

This book challenged me to change my perceptions of the mentally ill, especially as a future lawyer. It also taught me that just because someone has depression, split personality disorder or even schizophrenia does not preclude them from succeeding at law and ultimately, life.

A highly recommended read.

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