03/18/2010 05:12 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Elyn Saks: Recovery Of A Genius

Too often when we read stories about the mentally ill, we read about tragedy. A typical example is that of Michael Laudor, a Yale Law School student, who was touted by no less than the New York Times as a highly functional psychotic. Alternately diagnosed as a schizophrenic and schizo-affective, Laudor stopped taking his medication for unknown reasons and murdered his pregnant fiancée in 1998. In so doing, he not only terminated her life and that of their unborn child; he also reinforced the stereotype that the mentally ill are violent.

As I have written at length, the vast majority of psychotics are never a threat to anyone but themselves. Those with severe mental illness but no substance abuse problems commit only 3 to 4% of violent crime.

Unfortunately, studies also show that only one in five schizophrenics, who suffer from the most severe of psychotic disorders, will be able to live on their own and hold down a job.

That is why Elyn Saks, another former Yale Law graduate and schizophrenic, is a particular inspiration. Not only has she never been violent with anyone but herself (she used to burn her body with cigarette butts and lighters among other implements), she serves as an associate dean, with an endowed professorship, at USC Law School. In addition, she holds adjunct appointments in psychiatry at the Univ. of Calif.-San Diego and USC medical schools and teaches a class on schizophrenia at UCLA Medical School.

A former Marshall scholar, who was valedictorian of her class at Vanderbilt University, Saks is as gifted a writer as she is an academic. Her memoir, The Center Cannot Hold, limns what it is like to be psychotic, a nightmarish parallel universe that I too have experienced.

Saks, who was recently awarded a MacArthur "Genius" Grant, once thought that houses were communicating with her, a delusion I can relate to. I too was once diagnosed a schizophrenic. In 1999, at my most psychotic state, I thought my wife's apartment was bugged and that she and our cat had been programmed by the CIA. Both Saks and I feared that we were going to be blamed for a series of murders, though Saks also believed that she could kill people with her thoughts.

While she never harmed anyone, she was forcibly held down with leather straps at Yale-New Haven Hospital in the early to mid 1980s. A passage about that experience opens her book.

Asked about the current state of psychiatric wards, Saks, who met me for lunch at Jerry's Famous Deli in Westwood, says that a Harvard statistician has estimated that every week in this country there are one to three deaths due to heart attacks, swallowing of vomit and other complications from restraints.

Nonetheless, Saks says that the "trend is to minimize" restraints. She has done her part to end this antiquated and inhumane system by writing the book, Refusing Care: Forced Treatment and the Rights of the Mentally Ill. Years ago, as a law student, she also represented the mentally ill in a number of cases.

A willowy woman with wire-rim glasses and shoulder-length hair, Saks has a winning modesty about her. She laughs easily and likes to tell humorous anecdotes such as one about a global search-and-replace that was done on a law review article that had not been deemed sufficiently gender-neutral. The result was that the note came out with a well-known male judge referred to as "she."

Saks chortles at that.

Maybe it is her sharp, sprightly mind. Maybe it is her streaks of gray hair. But Elyn Saks bears a resemblance to photographer Annie Leibovitz, another brilliant artist. She also reminds one of a very tall version of Jane Campion, who just directed Bright Star, a film about the love affair between John Keats and Fanny Brawne.

Despite its Yeatsian title, The Center Cannot Hold, Saks' memoir calls to mind the poetry of the Romantics more than it does a tale about an apocalyptic time when "the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity." In the latter pages of the book, Saks' romance with her husband, Will, shines as clearly as the poppies she views in the Antelope Valley on one of their first dates.

Which gets to one of the essential points of recovery. Without the support and nurture of another human being, few of us will ever survive. That is particularly true of the mentally ill.

To understand how far Saks has come, one need only cite her conversations with her law school classmates when she was psychotic. She once greeted her friends with this conversation stopper, "Do you know where your schoolchildren are? Who's in the library with us? Have you ever killed anyone?"

Sometimes she spoke gibberish laden with rhymes and puns. Of her classmates, she once said, "Oh, they're nice. Do you like spice? I ate it thrice." Another time she told them, "I think someone's infiltrated my copies of the cases. We've got to case the joint. I don't believe in joints. But they hold your body together."

It is common for those who are psychotic to think that they are being undermined, even by subliminal messages. I never thought that someone had infiltrated copies of my books; but I did think that the government was working in conjunction with the L.A. Times to transmit messages to me. When I read an article about a child molester who matched my description, I thought that article had been placed for no reason other than to torment me even though I knew I was innocent.

Sadly, too many psychotics refuse to take their medication for a number of reasons: the severity of side effects, the perception that meds dim their creativity, or problems with authority figures.

I understand this since I did not want to take my meds in 1999 when I was psychotic; in my case, I sensed that the meds had been poisoned.

Elyn Saks has had her own battles over whether to take medication. Every time she stopped taking it, she became more psychotic. After years of going off her meds, she has learned that she must always take them. She now takes Prozac and clozapine and believes that she will be on them for the rest of her life.

As to what she intends to do with the $500,000 genius grant, Saks says that the money will help her pay for the expenses of her new book, which will focus on other high-achieving schizophrenics. She will use the monies to fly people to L.A. and take transcripts of their stories.

It is a testament to the MacArthur Foundation that it has honored Saks with this award because it shows that some institutions recognize that those with a disorder of the mind can make major contributions to society. The grant also helps to end the stigma associated with mental illness. Hopefully, as a result, more people will come forward with their stories, while those who are not mentally ill will start to realize that they need not fear and may even benefit from meeting many psychotics, who include their friends, neighbors and relatives.