Tuesday, March 21, 2017

How Not To Write a Character Who Has Anxiety: Criticizing Finding Audrey



To read my Goodreads review of this book, click here.

Hi bookworms,

So, a few weeks ago I finished reading a book that I'd been seeing and hearing about a lot in the book community, called Finding Audrey. The only thing I really knew about it was that the main character had anxiety. Since I suffer from social anxiety (as well as other general anxiety symptoms), I was really eager to read it. Along with this, I was intrigued by a protagonist who has anxiety, since many YA novels about mental illness tend to focus more heavily on depression.

Unfortunately, this book really did not impress me, and I actually thought it had terrible representation for anxiety disorder. With all of the problems that I found, it inspired me to write this blog post: How NOT To Write A Character Who Has Anxiety. So, let's get into it.


A brief overview: The novel centers around a teenage girl named Audrey, who suffers from anxiety after an incident with a group of girls at school, which leaves her housebound and wearing dark sunglasses at all times to avoid direct eye contact with others.  Her anxiety is sort of a mixed bag of generalized anxiety, social anxiety, and agoraphobia all in one. She can't meet new people without triggering a panic attack, and so she stays upstairs whenever visitors come to the door. She doesn't like to go outside, and even the thought of going into a Starbucks is enough to paralyze her with fear. And in general, she massively overthinks everything and obsesses over how others must see her.
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While there were certainly moments throughout the novel where I could relate to Audrey—as I'm sure others who have anxiety could, too—I actually sort of felt that Audrey represented a very cliche idea of what many people assume anxiety to be like. I just don't think it shows a lot of creativity, nor does it do well for mental illness representation to write only characters with anxiety who shut themselves indoors, run away from people, and wear glasses and clothing to shield themselves from the world. If anything, I think giving in to these cliches actually feeds people a very one-dimensional depiction of anxiety and hinders a great deal of our understanding of mental illness. Believe it or not, anxiety is an incredibly complex mental illness that exists on a vast spectrum, takes on many different forms, and affects so many different types of people. It does no good to water the entire mental illness down to the same overdone stereotypes. 

I don't know if the author was personally familiar with anxiety at the time of writing this book, but I didn't get the impression that she had put in the time and research; rather, she simply wrote a book based off of what she thought anxiety to be.

So...

Tip #1: Research, don't stereotype.
If you're writing a character with a mental illness, please do not just begin writing without having put any thought or research into it.  

Rather: Take the time to talk to many, many people who suffer from mental illness. Listen as they tell about their own personal experiences, how they feel about mental illness representation currently, what they feel could be changed or improved. Also: normalize people of all different personality types having anxiety. Normalize athletes having anxiety. Normalize artists and science nerds and drama kids and goths and outdoorsy types and all walks of life having anxiety. Because guess what? Mental illness does. Not. Discriminate. 

There are already too many misconceptions surrounding mental health, and it's important to get it right when writing a novel about it. 

Finding Audrey definitely struck me as more of a cutesy fluff read about anxiety. Which brings me to my main gripe about this novel and what brought me to write this post in the first place: the book eventually shifts from being about anxiety to a book about falling for a cute guy, and how said guy helps be the "cure" that the protagonist needed all along for their mental illness. A.K.A., one of my most detested tropes of all time.


Tip #2: If you're thinking of using the 'ol Love Interest Serves As the Cure For Protagonist's Mental Illness... DON'T.
Seriously, it's just the worst idea ever.

Early on in the book, Audrey meets Linus. At first she reacts the same way to him as she does with everyone else: by running in the opposite direction. But then just like that (and much sooner than seems possible for one with crippling anxiety) Audrey and Linus have a hot and heavy make-out session, thus beginning their relationship. Suddenly, in the presence of Linus, Audrey is able to do many of the things that seemed impossible to her before. He gets her to go to Starbucks. He gives her challenges to talk to random people in order to get her out of her shell. There are even several times throughout the novel where both Audrey and Linus specifically use the word "cure" in relation to Audrey's anxiety.

This is such an inaccurate depiction of mental illness—to think that a mental illness can be "cured" simply by the right person showing up and making it all magically go away, especially if that person is a romantic interest. Believe it or not, that's not how mental illness works. It is not as easy as finding a boyfriend, yet using this trope makes it seem like mental illness isn't really as big of a deal as people make it out to be. All this girl needs to cure her depression is a nice guy! To reinforce this trope, then, just completely illegitimizes the reality of mental illness and what is oftentimes actually a long road to recovery.


Tip #3: Make People With Mental Illness The Heroes/Heroines of Their Own Story.

Let's sort of keep adding onto point #2, shall we? Because there's a lot packed into it. Throughout the novel, Audrey continues to paint Linus as the gallant hero who singlehandedly pulled her out of her anxiety disorder. And there's just so much wrong with this kind of sexist rhetoric:

—The fact that a girl with a mental illness is completely helpless and reduced to a damsel in distress until some guy comes along to "save her." (Seriously, you may as well just put her in a tower...Oh wait, you kind of already did! If her bedroom where she stays holed up in counts as a tower, that is.)

—The fact that Audrey credits all of her progress to Linus from that point on.

—And perhaps most appalling: the fact that she is not given credit for saving herself.

This goes along with the previous tip, but to not give protagonists with mental illness the power within themselves—and to instead give that power to someone else— is to completely belittle the recovery process, where people fight every day to manage their mental illness, and where people spend years learning coping mechanisms and going to therapy and going through trials of different medications to find out which one works best for them.

Those who suffer from mental illness have an underlying strength, and to not give them a narrative where these strengths are emphasized as the driving force throughout the story is a complete injustice.

Make Books About Mental Illness CENTER On the Character's Illness and Their Journey To Recovery...
...Not the fact that they have a boyfriend/girlfriend/significant other.

This is the final flaw in this novel: that the story ultimately becomes much more about Audrey having a boyfriend than anything else, which is pretty disheartening. All that does is send the message that having a boyfriend = happiness, and that once you have a boyfriend, then surely the rest will follow. Not only that, but it places a relationship status higher in importance than mental health, which completely throws out the main purpose for writing a book regarding mental illness. Without question, your main intention for writing a book about mental illness should be about capturing the experiences of having a mental illness in as authentic and respectively a way as possible, thus giving voice to those whose stories are often kept silent behind closed doors. 

I repeat: the purpose of your story when writing about mental illness should be about giving voice to those with mental illnesses and making them the heroes of their own story. 


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With all that I've said, if you're looking to read a good book that focuses on anxiety disorder, I might instead direct your attention to Louise Gornall's novel Under Rose-Tainted Skies. Not only does it depict anxiety disorder in an incredibly realistic light and challenges the "love-cures-all" trope, but Louise Gornall is also an #ownvoices writer, having agoraphobia herself, and so can speak from her own experiences.

With that little book rec', I end this post. I hope you enjoyed it! Also, feel free to comment below with your thoughts on Finding Audrey, or if you know any other books with good mental illness representation!

2 comments:

  1. I read this book two years ago and I can defs agree with the fact that Linus almost seems to cute Audrey which is such a sucky trope and one that needs to be remedied. It's so unrealistic and downright offensive to the character and to others experiencing the same problem. Thanks for sharing your honest review!

    xx Anisha @ Sprinkled Pages

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    1. Agreed! I'm so glad you enjoyed this post! :)

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