Alex fights a daily battle to figure out the difference between reality and delusion. Armed with a take-no-prisoners attitude, her camera, a Magic 8-Ball, and her only ally (her little sister), Alex wages a war against her schizophrenia, determined to stay sane long enough to get into college. She’s pretty optimistic about her chances until classes begin, and she runs into Miles. Didn’t she imagine him? Before she knows it, Alex is making friends, going to parties, falling in love, and experiencing all the usual rites of passage for teenagers. But Alex is used to being crazy. She’s not prepared for normal.
The author of Made You Up, Francesca Zappia, says that she did a lot of research on schizophrenia when writing this novel. While I cannot doubt whether she did or not – because I am certain she would have – I decided to do my own research (just for fun). There were some hazy areas for me while reading this book. I studied schizophrenia extensively when I was in university (though it does not make me an expert), but because that was two years ago, I had to refresh my memory.
I consulted Wikipedia for a quick refresher. Things started to come back to me. I consulted my Clinical Psychology textbooks, and a few articles from the American Psychiatry Association. I consulted the DSM-IV (I don’t have access to the DSM-V, but I heard subtypes were removed, so there’s that). So that’s roughly, what, twenty, thirty minutes of research?
Here is what I found from my cursory search: Zappia’s portrayal of paranoid schizophrenia is sketchy. The novel’s main character, Alex, possesses positive symptoms, but does not have any distinct impairments that are typical in schizophrenia, i.e. deficits in expression of speech, emotion, thought disturbances, and/or avolition. People with schizophrenia have positive symptoms and negative symptoms (note: negative in this context means ‘in absence of’, not ‘bad/undesirable’). To show only the positive symptoms – and let’s be blunt, positive symptoms of schizophrenia are exaggerated and sensationalized in mass media – and neglect another side is sloppy and lazy writing. It makes its portrayal of schizophrenia unrealistic, and in extension exploitative. It does a great disservice to people with schizophrenia to use their condition as a plot device, rather than a meaningful, honest exploration of what it means to be schizophrenic.
I have met a woman with schizophrenia. In a talk she gave, she talked about her extremely strong delusions that she had when she was around Alex’s age. Her delusion was that she would receive a phone call from God who would tell her how to save the world. This woman, with her vivid accounts of how this delusion impaired almost every area of her life, I believe; Alex, I do not. Whilst I acknowledge that strength of delusion varies over time, Alex’s incessant checking for trackers and/or poison in her food felt more like accessories in the narrative to remind the reader of her illness. There is no analysis, or so much as a glance, of where or when this delusion arose. There is no context or story behind something that occupies her thoughts and dictates her behaviour, and because of this, it was shallow; a mere habit that readers should accept as a fact of her life.
Here is where I feel torn. Yes, Zappia should have taken more care to portray schizophrenia correctly, because misrepresentation is harmful (schizophrenia has a high comorbidity with depression, and a lot of people with schizophrenia commit suicide and are homeless) and can perpetuate misconceptions (people with schizophrenia suffer a lot of stigma, which can be just as, if not more, damaging than the mental illness itself). Although Zappia’s largely inaccurate portrayal of schizophrenia is problematic, strip away this flaw and you will find that this book is not about schizophrenia, nor it is about mental illnesses. At its very heart, Made You Up is about struggling with something that is real to you and invisible to everyone else, and that something is an irrevocable part of your life.
Made You Up had a strong and promising start. The mundane and fantastical interweave in the narrative, as reality and fantasy blur together. Zappia explores the relationship between the subject and reality, and illustrates how disturbing and frightening these discrepancies of subjective truth can be for the narrator. The fear of being unable to distinguish reality from imagination seeped into my consciousness; I was constantly questioning Alex’s perceptions, and afraid for her that she might misconstrue something. Alex’s unreliable narrative is compelling, and there was something engaging about her unflinching awareness of her condition.
What ultimately fails in this book is that the tone and direction radically change midway through the book. The characters’ pretenses begin to crack, revealing empty husks capable of repetitive, idle dialogue (maybe except Miles), and facades of typical high school caricatures – the hypermasculine jock, the bitchy cheerleader, and the misunderstood but quirky misfits. For a book that is about dispelling stereotypes, Made You Up utilizes many and neglects to develop a majority of its cast (the worst perpetrators are those in the club — and they are the ones the reader are meant to like). The relationship between the protagonist and the deuteragonist eventually loses momentum, and thus turns to eccentric romance in an attempt to reinvigorate the story. The change from frenemies to romantically-interested was so jarring and contrived that when it happened, I was so confused that I re-read the chapter to make sure that I had read it right (I did). The plot, initially atmospheric and introspective, transforms into an absurd school mystery/conspiracy that hinges on shock value to trigger cheap excitement. And isn’t it ironic that the person behind the conspiracy is mentally ill? This book is all sorts of hypocritical.
The appeal of Made You Up lies in the fact that it is a seemingly raw portrayal of someone struggling with a mental illness. Underneath this facade, it is a lacklustre romance that subsists because the reader is too distracted by red herrings (intentional or not) to notice that there isn’t much substance in the story. I wanted very much to like Made You Up. There are some true, genuine moments, so it is by all means not a terrible book. Unfortunately, they were outweighed by its lack of depth, disjointed plot, and its uninspired execution. Read Made You Up for its dialectic on reality and identity, but if you are looking for a book about mental illnesses, give this book a miss.
Book Name: Made You Up
Author: Francesca Zappia
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers New Zealand
It didn’t fit in the review, so here’s a post-review rant.
I once believed that mental illness needed a stronger presence in YA fiction. Today, I would like to amend that statement. I want mental illness to have a stronger presence, but more importantly, I want meaningful, thoughtful, and well-researched portrayals of mental illness. The biggest obstacles for youth with mental illness today is that they are misunderstood, and ableist language is deeply intertwined with everyday language. This needs to change, and it can begin with authors who not only have an interest in elucidating the abundance of misconceptions in society, but also make an effort to become acquainted with people and communities who have lived experience. If you want to start dialogue about a serious topic, you sure as hell need to know what you are talking about.