The title of Chloé Cooper Jones’ first book: SIMPLE BEAUTY (288 pp., avid reader, $28) — comes from a philosophical concept: “Easy beauty” is “seeming and not defiant,” Jones writes, as opposed to “difficult beauty,” which requires “time, patience, and a greater degree of appreciation.” The fact that she was born with a physical condition called sacral agenesis, which makes her body different – she is short in stature and has small lower legs – excludes Jones from easy beauty, as does the ancient Greek conception of “objective beauty.” As “a woman of a body that can never be mistaken for symmetrical or orderly,” she long believed that the only way to earn someone else’s respect, let alone desire, was to “be extraordinary in all other aspects.” ‘, brilliant and witty and humorous and cool. If the book is any proof, Jones is all these things. But there’s more to this beautiful, vividly living memoir.
Jones succinctly outlines her family, childhood and adult life, but she also describes a series of adventures, including a trip to see Beyoncé in Milan, another to see Roger Federer in California (both adventures allow her to lose herself in ecstatic crowds). These journeys take place after a Brooklyn bar scene in which two men, one of whom is a colleague in Jones’ graduate school, debate whether her handicapped life is worth living. She makes it clear that such comments are not new – from childhood she has constructed what she calls a “neutral room” in her head to escape both physical and emotional pain – and they are not always so academically veiled. People stare, mock, laugh and infantilize. They also dehumanize.
When she was a child, Jones’ father used to tell her bedtime stories. “My father understood that a good story is a circle that the hero finds back where they started, but with new knowledge,” she writes. “Easy Beauty” is a good story in this way. Towards the end, we return to a bar in Brooklyn, where another blunt man Jones makes a ridiculous comment about her body. “A year ago I might have turned his insulting question inward and used it as a weapon against myself,” Jones writes. But this time, she realizes, “It was his pain, not mine, and I wouldn’t take it on.” By rejecting the dismissive gaze of others, Jones stands in the light of her own extraordinarily capable self.
On Kyleigh Leddy’s seventh birthday, she blew out her candles with a new thought: “I wish my dreams come true, my family is healthy and my sister is getting better† Her sister Kait, six years her senior, had not yet been diagnosed. But somehow her sister knew enough to worry about her. An outgoing beauty with a big personality, Kait loomed large in Leddy’s childhood. “My sister was extraordinarily smart,” she writes in THE PERFECT OTHER: A Memoir of My Sister (304 pp., Mariner, $27)† “People were attracted to her.” Some time in adolescence, that high energy took a turn; mischief turned chaos – and the fights at home became terrifying, reminding Leddy of the horror movies her sister loved so much. Kait became violent and the police were called to the house regularly. After a particularly intense battle that sent both Kait and their mother to the hospital, Kyleigh didn’t let any friends sleep. She told them that her house was haunted. When Kyleigh was 12, her sister was diagnosed with schizophrenia. Days before she turned 17, her sister disappeared from their lives forever.
In ‘The Perfect Other’ Leddy talks about her sister’s mood swings, hallucinations and paranoia. Readers see each member of the family reacting differently to her illness: a mother desperately trying to keep things together, a father in denial, a girl who sees her adored older sister transform from “hilarious, charming, perfect” to “the one you love.” you’re hiding on the subway.” After Kait disappears, the family becomes “a group of reluctant detectives,” but they never solve their mystery. “Grief,” Leddy writes, “is never a closed case.” This is a painful book to read, despite the attentive, generous, humane narrator. As Kait’s illness terrifyingly manifests around her, Kyleigh understands that ‘the villain in my life was also the victim.’ Sometimes you are aware that she is also very young , just a few years away from the events she reports, there’s an immediacy here, but sometimes it feels like we’re reading something unfinished. But how could it be otherwise, with a missing, lost young woman in the vital, beating center?
When she was in eighth grade, Sarah Fay was diagnosed with anorexia. Other diagnoses followed: major depressive disorder, anxiety disorder, ADHD, OCD, and bipolar disorder. She suffered from racing thoughts, despair and a rigid adherence to rules. She considered suicide. In PATHOLOGICAL: The True Story of Six Misdiagnoses (320 pp., HarperOne, $27.99), her fiery manifesto of a memoir, Fay never denies her problems—indeed, the book describes not only her symptoms, but her persistent efforts to deal with them, understand them, and get help. But she dismisses the diagnoses because they come from what she sees as a dangerously misleading resource, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM), the book clinicians refer to when trying to put a name to a mental illness.
Fay illustrates not only her own successes and setbacks, but also the often strange history of the DSM, its contributors and adversaries. The book has been “marketed not only to psychiatrists and researchers, but also to psychologists, social workers, insurance companies, government agencies, pharma … and the general public,” she writes; its scope, she argues, far exceeds its scientific validity. And while “the bible of psychiatry doesn’t really offer treatment suggestions at all,” the ever-expanding diagnostic categories offer pharmaceutical companies plenty of opportunities to provide them. Once entangled in the mental health system, it is difficult to get out. “Not admitting I was bipolar indicated a ‘lack of insight’, anosognosia, which meant I was in denial, which meant I was sicker than I thought,” she writes.
Throughout “Pathological”, Fay also tracks the use and misuse of language, especially punctuation, as we try to understand our own complicated mind. “We should talk about and take care of our mental and emotional health,” she writes, “but we can resist the urge to pathologize our thoughts and feelings and respect those who are in crisis.” Faulty labels, she claims, don’t just help us not get better, they can actually make us worse.
Kate Tuttle is a freelance writer and editor.