Take a sizeable chunk of Nineteen Eighty-four, introduce pieces of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, add a dash of Poppy Shakespeare – and you will still be missing several vital ingredients that the author Michael Richmond has blended together to produce his dystopian novel Sisyphusa. Influenced by his own emotional breakdown and a lengthy spell of psychiatric intervention, Richmond has created an intriguing work of fiction that satirizes Mental Health Services whilst, simultaneously, highlighting the disempowerment and stigmatization experienced by twenty-first century psychiatric service users.
Snatched from the local Liquidizer one dreary February night, Odis Winston wakes up to find himself incarcerated in Sisyphusa and categorized as Weirdness Grade 2. After months of seclusion he is finally deemed ready to embark upon a rehabilitation programme with the ultimate goal of being discharged back to his home and family on the Island. As the story progresses, the chances of Odis or any of the other service users ever being allowed to leave Sisyphusa seem increasingly slim until, having been slung down into The Pit – a pitch-black hole full of human sewage – he meets the mysterious Gwen who, driven by her guilty conscience, discloses her secret plan for a mass break-out.
Running contrary to any such ideas of escape stands the formidable Warden Serky, an epitome of humiliation and control. Ably assisted by the beast-like henchmen, she struts her stuff like Nurse Ratched on acid, brainwashing and humiliating the service users in the ironically named Team Recovery. A much more insidious sentinel lies within the service users themselves as they succumb to the process of institutionalisation: a passive acceptance of and reliance upon the hospital structure, which is much more likely to thwart any escape attempts than the three-headed monster that prowls the corridors of Sisyphusa.
As time passes, Odis’s mind-set slowly changes as he begins to develop insight into the disempowering structures that underpin the mental health system in Sisyphusa. Identifying himself with the other downtrodden service users, he develops a quiet determination to redress the balance of power. Of course, despite a thin glimmer of hope, life in Sisyphusa continues to be plagued with tragedies, from the intimacies and tensions that emanate from service user relationships to the untimely deaths and suicides of a number of inmates. Perhaps the only realistic chance of escape is to follow the Flower Eaters’ example and ingest the essence of the Ziziphusa flowers.
Throughout the novel, Richmond manages to parody the negative effects of what we still refer to as mental ‘illness’ by introducing concepts such as ‘climbing pills’ (mandatory medication crucial to the rehabilitation process), ‘Normalization classes’ (where service users are cognitively restructured and taught to behave like ‘normal’ people) &, perhaps the most insidious of devices, the Neuro-Function Reading Mechanism – or earpiece – which is stapled onto every service user’s ear to deliver a constant stream of abuse designed to crush the individual’s self-esteem.
As a narrative, Sisyphusa works well. I was hooked into the story from chapter one & the unfolding plot had enough intrigue about it to keep me interested right to the final chapter. Having been written by someone with more than a passing interest in mental health issues there is a passion that flows from the author’s pen and drives the story forward. The characters & their roles have been well thought out and everyone from the protagonist to the smallest bit-part player are there for a reason: Dobbsy, Ella, Mr Femuz (who reminded me so much of Chief Bromden in ‘Cuckoo’s Nest’), the splendidly-named Governor Shade, even Gwen’s cats play significant roles as Richmond never misses an opportunity to campaign for improvements in mental healthcare.
Every so often, a novel is produced that highlights the imbalance of power between the so-called sane and the mad. Sisyphusa is a timely reminder, perhaps, that – although there have been improvements made in mental health services over recent years – we still have a system in the UK that devalues difference and stigmatizes and controls by way of segregation and medical compartmentalisation. For those who consider themselves to be standing firmly on the sane side of the line, madness will always be something they can point to as being suffered by the ‘other’ – an unconscious defence mechanism often employed to deny their own emotional vulnerabilities.
Wrapped up in the hyperbole of Sisyphusa is an important Foucauldian message of a disciplinary power that is still enforced within our mental health system through various subtle methods of control. Richmond has piled Pelion on Ossa in order to capture his audience – but beneath those imaginary mountains lies a very real problem and a call to arms for us all. Please do buy a copy of Sisyphusa – I found it to be a fascinating and extremely worthwhile read.
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