On Record: Lowboy

Join Caitlin, Maddie, Celia, and Madeleine as they discuss Lowboy, a novel by John Wray, telling the fictional story of Will, a 16-year-old with schizophrenia as he navigates a psychotic episode. Hear their thoughts on mental health in literature and how it’s often stereotypical depiction in the media can lead to miseducation.

Transcription

CAITLIN: It was a moment and scene that really did humanize him, as Wray had intended. As the reader, we see him struggle at something that we perceive as effortless and start to understand just how debilitating schizophrenia is. 

MADELEINE: While our goal in this podcast is to tackle and address controversial topics, we are doing so from an analytical standpoint. Our goal is to educate ourselves and listeners through our discussions. No member of On Record supports racism, derogatory language, or offensive content.

MADELEINE: Welcome to On Record, where we discuss controversial and underrepresented literature. We’re your hosts, Madeleine Bonnallie…

CAITLIN: Caitlin Clement…

MADDIE: Maddie Willey…

CELIA: …and Celia Brocker.

CAITLIN: Alrighty, welcome to episode 4 of On Record. We’re going to be talking about the novel Lowboy by John Wray. We don’t have a news story for you this morning today, but we do kind of want to talk about mental health generally as a topic. We’re all seniors graduating with our undergraduate degrees here in the next few weeks-

MADDIE: Exactly a month-

CAITLIN: -Exactly a month-

MADDIE: -From when we’re recording this. 

CAITLIN: That’s a little scary. Graduation is always, you know, tends to be a very turbulent time for people. Or not, I guess it just depends on how things work out for you. I know personally, I’m really having a tough time trying to find a job, or just even getting interviews for anything right now. I know that the journalism industry tends to get back to people a little later than other industries, which is a little frustrating. But I kinda want to just open the floor to you guys and see how you guys are feeling mentally. Madeleine, I know that you’re going to graduate school, right? 

MADELEINE: Yes. Yeah, it was interesting. I’m actually in a better place than I was when I started this year, cause when I started my senior year, I was planning on going to law school. I was going to be a lawyer. And then had this total existential crisis of “Oh my god, I don’t want to be a lawyer. That sounds horrible,” even though I studied for the LSAT for the past year and a half. So in November, a few weeks before all the deadlines for grad school came up, I put together an application and just threw it out there to a bunch of schools hoping that I could get into a graduate program. So it actually worked out, I’m going to be teaching two English Comp. classes and getting my masters at KU. But I think I hit my crisis in December and January, and now we’re starting to slowly settle down. 

CAITLIN: A little earlier than everybody else. 

MADELEINE: Exactly.

[LAUGHTER]  

CAITLIN: But that’s exciting, that’s awesome, that’s really good to hear. Celia? 

CELIA: Well, I’ve just been applying for places, but you know, like you said they take awhile to get back to you. So I’m kind of in limbo, which is very frightening. That’s the most frightening part, is not knowing where you’re going-

CAITLIN: Yeah exactly.

CELIA: That kind of gives you anxiety. But you know, it could be a lot worse, so. 

MADDIE: For me, it’s been kind of stressful ’cause, in addition to being in the journalism realm, I also have a design major. So I’ve been working on kind of updating my portfolio and résumé with just current experiences from the semester and pieces. So that’s been stressful just because putting together my portfolio is always stressful for me, just cause it’s, you’ve gotta vamp yourself up. 

CAITLIN: Yeah

MADDIE: I’m not the best at vamping myself up. 

CAITLIN: But yeah, it’s definitely a time that is a little stressful for quite a few people. You know, there’s always this pressure, especially at Drake (you know the “Drake Busy”) to have your shit figured out basically by the time you graduate. And I think it’s good to put out there that you don’t always have to have your shit figured out right away. You know, it might take a few months, it might take longer than you expected. But I think eventually everyone finds that job or that grad school or wherever they’re going, they end up going to the right place, basically. 

[MUSIC: 0:05]

CAITLIN: To transition to what we’ll be talking about today, is Lowboy. It’s a novel by John Wray. Now this book is about ten years old, being published in 2010, so it’s not new. However, I have some reasoning behind why I chose it. So when researching books that dealt with mental health, most of them covered anxiety or depression. While both are topics that obviously need discussion, and we have books like 13 Reasons Why, Perks of Being a Wallflower, The Color Purple, Yellow Wallpaper, Looking for Alaska, and lots and lots more that cover these two topics from just about every angle you could imagine. So I really wanted to find a book that covered an underrepresented mental illness in literature, in order to learn something new about it. So that’s why I chose Lowboy, because it dives into the mind of a schizophrenic. 

The main character, William Heller, who calls himself Lowboy throughout the book, is in the middle of this psychotic episode on the uptown B-train in New York City’s underground subway system. He does pop in and out of the subway system, he’s not always in there, but that’s kind of the main background to the story. Before reading it though, I kinda posed a few questions to myself, like “Is this an accurate representation of the mental illness, what kind of images does this book place on schizophrenia, and what does it add/subtract to/from the discussion?” And I do want to give a little bit of a disclaimer; I am not an expert on schizophrenia, everything I’m saying has been based on research and information gathered from trustworthy sources, or the book itself. 

But some background information on what schizophrenia actually entails. According to the Mayo Clinic, schizophrenia is a “serious mental disorder in which people interpret reality abnormally.” Schizophrenia may result in some combination of hallucinations, delusions, and extremely disordered thinking and behavior that impairs daily functioning and can be disabling. 

So, obviously very much affects someone’s day to day life and general perception of the world. Treatment usually involves a combination of antipsychotics and psychiatric therapy, which we do see in the book. It’s actually quite, it’s mentioned quite a lot. His medications and his relationship with his psychiatrists in the mental hospital.

Some background about the book is, so Lowboy is a paranoid schizophrenic who has escaped from a mental hospital and believes that global warming is going to destroy the earth in 10 hours. The only way to save it is to lose his virginity. He then seeks out Emily, his previous girlfriend, as the means to fulfill his mission. So, the book also switches to the point of view of the detective Lateef, who is trying to track him down along with Will’s mother after he escapes the mental hospital. So it’s kind of two points of view. You know, we have Will’s point of view that is very kind of scattered, and you can’t really understand it a whole lot, which is kind of the point, you know. His mind just works differently, so to us it doesn’t make a lot of sense. And then you kind of go to a detective who is basically trying to do his job and find this kid because he was known to be violent in the past. But also seeing how Will’s mother and her parental protectiveness of him, seeing that and just trying to get a child back to his mother too.. So it’s definitely been a variety of perspectives which has been interesting.  

[MUSIC]

CAITLIN: A great thing that I saw that Wray does in the book is that he reminds us every now and again that this is a 16-year-old boy, right? So, when you look at it simply, despite the reason behind it, or Will’s reasoning behind things, his main goal is to have sex. Like most boys his age. I mean it’s pretty human and pretty normal for a 16-year-old boy, yet this one just happens be a schizophrenic. We can also see a level of wittiness to his personality as well. The way he converses with people on the subway or with Emily. He’s very sarcastic a lot of the time. So, Wray still puts a lot of personality and character in there to bring out this level of humanity, this individualism. To paint him as more of a person and less as an illness and less as a scary-ish character that I think that a lot of schizophrenics overtake in entertainment and books. Do you think it’s important that the books that cover topics of mental health represent them in ways that show the individual being affected by it versus just the illness?

MADDIE: I would say that I think it’s really important that we do still have that individual aspect in these books because, like you were saying, they are a human. Like, Will is a 16-year-old boy. He, that is him, but he just happens to have schizophrenia as well, and it’s important to just show that people who have a mental illness are human. They are human and have many different levels and layers to themselves and their personality, and it’s important to see that and to show that. 

CELIA: I absolutely agree and I do think individuality is important in the sense that way we don’t broadcast mental illness or stereotype it as being the same for every person because, you know, everyone is different. There is a big spectrum of, you know, mental illness. There’s a spectrum of everything. Like, one person’s experience with mental illness is not going to be the same as somebody else’s. So if we don’t have that individuality in there, then it can trick people into thinking that, oh because this person responds in this situation in this way then that’s applicable to everyone with mental illness. But you can’t treat everybody the same. 

MADELEINE: And I think it’s interesting too for this one, at least with what I’ve seen about schizophrenia in like the media and how it has been represented in literature and everything, it almost seems like someone loses that individuality when they’re diagnosed with schizophrenia. That becomes their main, defining part of their personality, like, they’re no longer that individual. He’s no longer that 16-year-old boy. He is someone who’s schizophrenic and may be dangerous and doesn’t function like people do in the real world. So, I think it’s interesting that this author did try to take that point of view, showing him as a real person and showing him having normal desires and wants as a 16-year-old boy, no matter what his reasoning is. Because honestly, some boys have had worse reasonings for wanting to have sex. So I just think, like, it’s interesting that he took this point. I think it’s an important perspective to have in a book like this.

[MUSIC]

CAITLIN: I kind of want to bring it around to more of the schizophrenic side. When you think of schizophrenia, what stereotypes do you think about?

MADELEINE: I definitely think of, and this is horrible, but horror movies. Like you think of schizophrenia, even if they don’t directly say ‘this person is schizophrenic,’ like in a lot of horror movies this person hears voices and sees hallucinations, and it’s supposed to make this person terrifying or everything about them is terrifying. So that’s what I think of

CELIA: Yeah I agree, I think of, stereotypically, I think of in The Hunger Games when they have the tracker jackers that make you see a bunch of things that aren’t there.

MADDIE: I like your comparison that you made with the tracker jacker serum because that does, it does make them into a crazed state and just kind of like, that just kind of what I think of. More of a crazed state, kind of talking a bunch of gibberish to other people. Obviously to them it makes sense in their mind but…

CAITLIN: No absolutely, I would say that going into this book, that is exactly kind of what I expected, agreeing with every kind of version or perspective that what you guys were talking about. Like I definitely see it as, I saw  schizophrenia that was a little more violent. Or people having delusions, or this person that was almost dangerous in a sense. Which it is a very serious mental illness and there are some patients who are a danger to others, which is why they go to mental hospitals and institutions. But it’s, I don’t like looking at one perspective of it, and that becoming the whole. Which I think is a big issue with a lot of things right now. Like focusing on a specific group within a big group and then saying that that entire group is that way. Which, Lowboy was really refreshing in the sense that yes, he still had delusions, and yes, he still had all of the characteristics of schizophrenia. But, he was an individual. You know, I see entertainment—  So like the movie Split, that’s not schizophrenia but it is Dissociative Personality Disorder. And I remember after reading this book I kind of looked back on that movie and I was like “Wow, I was really excited to see that movie because I thought it’d be, like, super cool.” And now I look back on it and I’m like, that is a very violent representation of Dissociative Personality Disorder. And maybe, probably wasn’t the best thing to do.

CELIA: I’m glad you brought that up because I was thinking about that as soon as I read this, and I was looking at depictions of mental health in movies and that one gets brought up a lot because it kind of gives this false idea that people who have mental illnesses are inherently dangerous or violent, which is not the case. You know, of course.

CAITLIN: Yeah, like not everybody—so the acronym of it is DID, not everybody with DID is going to go and kidnap teenage girls and murder people. Most of them don’t do that. 

[LAUGHTER]

CAITLIN: That would be a very rare case. And it’s interesting because I’ve had this TikToker pop up on my TikTok lately who has DID. That was like a normal representation of somebody. They just change personalities and they’re pretty, you know, normal human beings. Like, he’s married, he’s got kids. You know, I like to see that representation. 

[MUSIC]

CAITLIN: Coming back to the book a little bit more and showing this humanity. There was a scene with a cupcake shop. It was very discombobulated again because it’s through the perspective of Will. But he went into a cupcake shop because he was trying to buy—and it’s on page 130. But he was trying to buy a cupcake for Emily. And when at the register, he starts having these delusions that the front of house staff had put a bomb in the bag. And he was promptly kicked out of the shop after he started yelling and frightening those around him. It was a moment and scene that really did humanize him as Wray had intended. As the reader, we see him struggle at something that we perceive as effortless, and start to understand just how debilitating schizophrenia is from a normal day to day perspective. Like, to no fault of the individual. Because it’s an unconscious reaction. It’s just how their brain views things and is wired. And it only scares us because we don’t understand it. Seeing that unfold through Will’s eyes made me understand that a little bit more. 

MADELEINE: And I think it’s also interesting just you talking about day-to-day life and how there’s a lot of physical disabilities or physical things that we think of with day-to-day life. But you don’t think of mental illness and how it does affect people on their day-to-day. And when you do think about it you still don’t—it’s almost—it’s not as ‘valid’ as like physical disabilities or physical ailments or anything like that. It’s kind of—you assume someone can get over it and obviously for him, there’s no way he can rationalize what he’s feeling or like get through that and he just wanted to buy a cupcake. So I just think, seeing the day to day life like that and trying to understand, or at least reading that and trying to understand how that affects day-to-day can be a really important thing, I guess.

CAITLIN: One of the biggest things—one of the coolest things that I thought or that I came across when researching the book was that Wray had literally written the book in the subway. So immersed himself into that whole realm. And he even spent a week in a mental institution watching and learning about how it runs, and how schizophrenics act, and their mannerisms and everything. And I thought that that was really cool because he wanted to portray this character as accurately as he could when he himself is not a schizophrenic. And I think that’s really hard to do. 

MADDIE: Yeah, I think that that’s important for authors to do and a lot of good authors are the ones that do that thorough background research and kind of try and submit themselves into the position of their characters. Because you know then they—they care enough about that issue that they want to learn more, and they want to portray it in an accurate way.

CAITLIN: Yeah absolutely. I would say one thing that I had a problem with with the book was—so under the theme of violence, because there are some violent parts of the book. So there are three bigger events. Before his little adventure in the present, he had an incident that sent him to the metal hospital, which he escaped from, when he pushed Emily, his girlfriend, onto subway tracks because he was having delusions and thought that she was, you know, out to hurt him. And then, at the very beginning of the book he’s talking to this Sikh man whom he’d been talking to for quite some time, it lasted for maybe two or three chapters. And then immediately a switch flipped and he threw him across the train. And then, towards the end, he essentially tried to rape Emily in order to fulfill his mission. But Wray kind of juxtaposes himself through one of his own characters, and I believe it either the mother or Will himself. I couldn’t go back and find the exact quote. But, somewhere in the book it talks about how they didn’t like the violent portrayal of schizophrenics in the media, and then I was like “Okay but also, you’re kind of portraying Will to be a violent schizophrenic in the book. So, that was one problem that I had with it, but despite that, I still think it was a very…it was a different perspective from other things that have been put out there about schizophrenics. So I think it’s okay, sorry it’s not okay, but it’s a problem that is smaller in comparison to the other things that I like about the book.

MADELEINE: I am a little curious, like, the relevance of including violence or instances of violence in this book, especially if it was trying to be a representation of ‘not everyone who is schizophrenic isn’t violent.’ I honestly do not know anything about it, but are their violent episodes a very common thing that happened with most people diagnosed with schizophrenia, or is this just one of those cases where he did want to show one of the extremes in the book or the extremes in the illness?

CAITLIN: The little,  the amount of research I did surrounding schizophrenia in general, there are cases where people do become violent and that’s more severe cases of schizophrenia. But then there are also people who are not violent, who just have delusions and paranoia who can live with it a little bit better. So, I think he could have taken it in the lens of Will not being a violent schizophrenic because, again I understand that he’s an author and he’s trying to sell books, and that may not be the most exciting version of schizophrenia but…

CELIA: You know, sometimes mental illness is scary and bad things do happen, especially when people aren’t getting the help they need. To be honest that could also just be a call to awareness to say “hey, you know, we need to do more to make sure that people who have mental illnesses need to be getting the care that they need,” you know. Iowa is like the worst state out of all 50 for mental health. So, anything we can do to just say hey, we need more resources for these people and these illnesses, I see that as a good thing. 

MADDIE: Yeah, and I feel like one step to getting more of those resources is raising awareness of the issues and just getting, showing all sides of it. Like you mentioned earlier, there was an account that had come up on your TikTok feed with multiple personality disorder, and I’ve seen a few videos like that pop-up on my feed. There usually very willing to openly discuss about their personalities and people ask if they’re comfortable could they show and kind of talk about each of their personalities, and they’re very open about it because they want to raise awareness and just kind of show that it’s normal, and it’s not this weird thing that’s a bad thing.

CAITLIN: Yeah, yup. Some people just need that help. Some people just need that extra bit of support. Whether that comes from medications, or therapy, or anything out there that’s set up for them to succeed. Or even just general, like you were saying, just more information about it, just more education about it. I think that goes for any form of mental illness whether that’s anxiety, depression, schizophrenia, dissociative personality disorder, or any of them. I think as long as we keep pushing out that education and letting people know that it’s not scaryand I mean sometimes it is scary kind of like Celia saidbut it’s something that needs to be known, and it’s okay if you need help with it. It’s okay to reach out and get help for it. Which books like these, like Lowboy, I think they offer that humanity, that human connection that sometimes people don’t get when they learn about these mental illnesses, and it just offers a new perspective on things.

[MUSIC]

CAITLIN: Thanks for discussing and listening to me talk about Lowboy. It was definitely an interesting read. Not something that I typically read myself, but it was definitely eye opening and a different perspective to look on. For our listeners out there, you can get this book online at Barnes & Nobles or I just kind of got it off of Amazon if anyone is interested in reading it. 

MADDIE: Thanks for listening to the Urban Plains podcast On Record. Join us next week where we will be discussing Habibi. A graphic novel by Craig Thompson set in a fictional Islamic land and shows the relationship between Dodola and Zam, two escaped child slaves and their story as they are torn apart, undergo many changes throughout life, and their journey of finding each other. 

Check out our website urban-plains.com to listen to our podcasts and follow us on our social media to get the latest news on all things On Record.

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