Winston Churchill had a mental illness– as did William Blake, Vincent van Gogh, Virginia Woolf, Georgia O'Keefe, Sylvia Plath, and many other creative, inventive people throughout our history. A new book argues that without such neurodiverse people, our world would be a less vibrant place and that the human species would find it more difficult to survive and adapt.
A Mind Apart: Travels in a Neurodiverse World by Susanne Antonetta examines how neuroatypicals– people with disassociative disorder, autism, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and other neurological disorders– see the world and how the world sees them. Part memoir, part scientific investigation, Antonetta addresses the potential consequences of genetically eradicating these conditions. She argues that just as biodiversity is essential for the survival of the human race, so too we must remain neurodiverse in order to adapt and survive.
The book's approach is very personal; Antonetta uses her own experiences living with bipolar disorder– as well as her relationships with a friend, Dawn, who has Asperger's syndrome and a relative, N'Lili, who has disassociative disorder– to examine the ways in which neurological disorders influence the way in which people think and view the world.
Asked what she sees as death, Dawn responds, "I can only tell you images. It's a huge cloud, and it's traveling up." N'Lili, when questioned about her multiple personalities, states she had no sense of having an unconscious. "I can see everything that's going on in my head. Everything's just laid out in front of me, like a filing cabinet."
Antonetta argues that a world without such minds would be impoverished. We would lose the intensely "visual consciousness" of an autistic, the "metaphoric consciousness" of a person with bipolar disorder, the extraordinary sensitivity of all those whose minds are open and vulnerable to reality. And we would lose all that these unique ways of thinking can teach us.
Technology (genetic engineering, genetic selection) with the ability to eliminate neurological disorders is close at hand. Antonetta argues that for a species to survive and flourish it must remain as diverse as possible in order to have millions of possible responses to choose from when faced with unexpected evolutionary pressures, but that society is not prepared to accept neuroatypicals as part of our "adaptive advantage."
If we rid ourselves, through genetic engineering, of traits we find undesirable now, according to Antonetta, we may be setting ourselves up for disaster in the future, when those traits will be needed for the species to adapt.
Avoiding genetic eradication is not the same, however, as avoiding treatment of mental illness.
"Of the people I know who qualify as neuroatypical, including myself, I do not know any who refuse medication or therapy," Antonetta writes. "I take medication, and have for thirty years."
Antonetta's husband urges, "Tell them it's a bipolar book."
"Hey, out there. It's a bipolar book."
She asks him what that means. He describes it as alinear and associational. "I always have many things happening in my mind at once," she acknowledges. It's an accurate description of the book. It's provocative on several levels, and requires careful reading and thought.
Antonetta previously has written Body Toxic: An Environment Memoir, which the New York Times named a Notable Book in 2001. She also has written books of poetry and received a National Endowment for the Arts grant for non-fiction. She lives on the shores of Puget Sound in Washington State.
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