115th Annual Conference - Honolulu, Hawaii
Friday, November 10 - Sunday, November 12, 2017

Invisibility Pills: Psychopharmacology, Invisible Disability, and Memoirs of Depression

Rhett Farinholt, University of California, San Diego

Do literary configurations of antidepressants operate as "ramps" or "prostheses"?  To answer this question, this paper applies the tools of environmental disability studies to look at three depression memoirs from the 1990s and explores how such a distinction helps communicate the experience and treatment of invisible disabilities.


In this paper I argue that psychopharmaceuticals—primarily antidepressants—play an important and under-examined role in the intersecting discourses of disability studies and late-twentieth century American literature.  Extending Rosemarie Garland-Thompson's critical keyword "misfit" to the invisible realm of mental disabilities, I assert that American literature has often configured chemical interventions in the brain as a redress of a “misfit” between the individual and her environment.  Analyzing three 1990s literary memoirs on depression, Elizabeth Wuertzel’s Prozac Nation (1994), Meri Nana-Ama Danquah’s Willow Weep For Me (1998), and William Styron’s Darkness Visible (1990), I argue for literature's unique power to communicate and mitigate the fit between the external environment and the internal experience of the mind, making visible the invisible disabilities of depression and anxiety.  Building from existing disability studies work on environmental issues, I ask whether antidepressants in these contexts operate as “ramps,” by changing the shape of the world to better fit the individual, or, inversely, as “prostheses” that alter the shape of the individual to better fit the external environment, and ultimately argue that such distinctions can help build a more empathetic community between those whose disabilities that can be seen, and those whose disabilities that cannot.