Review of "Agents in My Brain"

By Bill Hannon
Open Court, 1997
Review by Anne Philbrow on Oct 29th 2001
Agents in My Brain

First person accounts of mental illness can be fascinating and enlightening. At what point does one cease to be 'normal' -- i.e. fail to conform socially to such a degree that one is considered 'mentally ill'?

From the viewpoint of those designated 'mad', there is no clear borderline indicating at which juncture you have lost sight of 'reality' when all your experiences only serve to confirm your delusions. After all, we are all familiar with certain regimes denouncing independent thinkers as insane.

Bill Hannon describes his own experiences of this in careful detail, charting the highs and lows of manic depression.

For example, his conviction that the FBI wish to hire him as a secret agent is confirmed to him by 'signs' whereby he believes they are testing his suitability to work as an agent. Every trivial event is seen as communication from the FBI, and within the framework of Bill's belief system at the time, there would be no way of proving the absurdity of his delusions.

For example, he describes (p 219);

'...somebody...drove by playing a rap tape. I thought this was a clue from the FBI that they liked my taste in music....somebody lit a firecracker...I didn't flinch. I thought the secret agents wanted to see if I would flinch.' p 221;
'He [a manic-depressive friend] burped periodically and I started thinking that was a clue for emphasis. He denied being in the FBI, but I thought that was part of his job.'

Although Bill Hannon could subsequently recognize his manic-depressive thoughts as delusional and often paranoid, it is chillingly clear how difficult, or even impossible, it would have been to permeate his self-constructed map of 'reality' during a manic or depressive phase. Nothing could unseat his beliefs as he can provide an apparently rational, and to him, plausible, interpretation of any mundane experience as one in which the world entirely revolves around his concerns.

The philosophically interesting point, which Hannon does not address, is whether 'normal' people are that different. We all make our own social constructs to explain our own experiences, indeed it is necessary to make any sense of the world and to go about our usual business. Preferring one 'reality' over another is settled by majority assent, rather than any appeal to an abstract truth, as we cannot recognize the legitimacy of any belief system outside the one we ourselves subscribe to. (I am speaking of fundamental beliefs here; people may differ on religious or political points, but are more likely to agree on fundamentals such as recognizing a certain color as 'blue', though there are of course exceptions to this).

Hannon has constructed this autobiographical study with the assistance of his own medical case notes. This has its own interest, but the ins and outs of his manic-depressive episodes and subsequent treatment, can get a bit wearing for the reader. I realize his intention is to provide a complete account; however, it does not make for a gripping read. Verbatim accounts of minor conversations which happened years ago, may have seemed significant in his life, but could do with considerable editing for the reader's benefit.

There are various themes which repeatedly appear. One is his father's role in Bill Hannon's mental illness -- his father is portrayed as an excessively possessive and controlling person. Genetic factors are also implicated, as his mother experienced mental illness. Hannon has a strong sense of Jewish identity, which also emerges. He relates, for example, an invitation to use a shower as a veiled threat, linking it with the Jewish Holocaust experience of being shepherded to 'bathhouses' where poison gas capsules where released. It is not surprising, with this cultural history, that his paranoia manifests itself in such ways. He also repeatedly blames his various doctors for inappropriate treatment and is obsessed with wanting to sue them. He clearly wants a scapegoat for his pain, and although some of his criticisms of the medical profession may well be justified, his reactions and meticulous recording of every medical encounter seem somewhat self-obsessed.

There is some attempt made to explain and account for his experiences of manic depression. From a reader's point of view, I would have preferred a more 'writerly' approach, which could have made the book more interesting. There is little real analysis or introspection; what there is, is minimal and undeveloped. Stylistically, many of the anecdotes could have been dropped, and those remaining could have been described with a dramatically greater sense of involving the reader, and in turn create a greater understanding of the illness. It is possible to write autobiographically about illness and engage the reader - for example, as Elizabeth Wurtzel does in Prozac Nation. Unfortunately in my case, Bill Hannon failed to do this, though I appreciate his effort in recording his experiences as meticulously as possible. As a diary of experience, it is useful to anyone interested in mental illness, but I do wish he had made it a better read.

©  2001 Anne Philbrow

Anne Philbrow writes of herself:

I am a self-employed video producer and teach music and drama on a part-time basis. I have a BA Hons in Philosophy from UCW, Aberystwyth, UK and have done postgraduate research in Moral and Social Philosophy, specializing in Animal Rights. In my spare time, I do some freelance writing (book and theater reviews, articles) and have contributed to Philosophy in Review. I am a user of mental health services.


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