“Not at all, Herr Schreber. You do not seem cured at all. But I don’t imagine there is anything much I can do to cure you. I can bring you here and you can see how it is that everything is quite sensible and ordinary. I can help you see that your anxieties are exaggerations of very simple and commonplace problems that a man might have. […] But I cannot make you see what is in front of you.”
Playthings, by Alex Pheby, is written from the point of view of a retired German judge, Daniel Paul Schreber, who, upon finding his wife collapsed on the floor of their parlour, becomes psychotically agitated. Paul suffered from what was then diagnosed as dementia praecox, which today is known as paranoid schizophrenia. Being taken inside the head of a man with this illness is disturbing, but the author does so with aplomb.
Paul Schreber was born in 1842, in Leipzig, Saxony. He was the son of a successful physician who founded and ran the Orthopaedic Institute in which Paul and his four siblings were raised. His father was a pedagogue, demanding that all in his home adhere to a strict routine. He raised his son to believe that boys should be manly and energetic, and that the poor or deformed, including those he treated at his institute, were lesser beings.
Paul Schreber suffered three major psychotic episodes in his life, describing the second in a memoir which became an influential book in the history of psychiatry and psychoanalysis thanks to its interpretation by Freud (the memoir has become a key text for students of psychology and modern and social and cultural history). Alex Pheby has taken the known facts and woven them into a compelling and compassionate account of how it would be to live with this illness.
Early on in the book, when Schreber is wandering the streets, he encounters members of the public whom he talks to from the confusion his reality has become. He frightens and appalls them, pushing them aside as insubstantial, inconsequential objects. He is intent on pursuing what to him seems a valid response to a skewed world.
At times this world becomes two dimensional; familiar people and places appear flimsy, ripples in space.
“His house was not there. Neither were the trees. No railings. No streetlamps. In their place were representations of these things. The objects […] they were changed […] they were all wrong. […] all these things were there, but when Schreber came close and put his cold fingertips to them they were smooth as pieces of letter paper and just as thin […] all utterly false.”
Schreber’s reality will often digress from that which those around him can see. People appear, who talk to him of his past, who know things that they should not. They remind him of incidents which he finds embarrassing or upsetting. They force him to acknowledge facts he has difficulty facing.
Much of what Schreber does and says during his time in hospital is wiped from his memory. He loses days, weeks, sometimes months at a time. During his more lucid moments he looks back on his life and the reader learns of his childhood, snapshots of significant moments. There are fleeting references to incidents which disturb his equilibrium, memories which he has buried in the basement of his mind.
Schreber’s family struggle to cope with what he has become. His daughter wishes to bring him home but his wife fears she would be unable to cope. She worries that he will write another memoir and embarrass them further. His first contained wild imaginings from his extreme delusional state, although he did not accept that they were delusions. He now denies that he ever had such thoughts.
This book allows the reader to see not only the patient’s struggles and fears but also the impotence of those around, however worthy their aims. Solutions acceptable to society involve locking the patient away, physically or pharmaceutically. With no cure available it is possible to empathise with all involved.
An incredible work of fiction, all the more fascinating for being based on an actual case. The writing is taut, intense, the everyday world a phantom which Schreber tries so desperately to attain. His disturbance of mind is not so much explained as experienced. This story is powerful and moving; I would recommend it to anyone with an interest in the humanity behind mental illness.
My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Galley Beggar Press.