Mental Health Musings: Do Authors Have to Get Everything Right?

mental health musing

Last month, I decided to read Stephen King’s The Dark Tower series. So far, I’ve read the first four (of seven) books, and while I’ve most enjoyed the first and fourth so far, I have much more time thinking about the second installment, The Drawing of the Three. Admittedly, this has been my least favorite thus far for a variety of reasons, but that isn’t the source of my rumination. What has continued to plague my thoughts in the month since turning the last page was a grossly inaccurate mental health diagnosis.

About a third of the way through the book, the reader is introduced to two characters, O’Detta and Detta. However, these characters inhibit but one physical body. These split characters are supposed to be the result of the very rare mental health diagnosis, dissociative identity disorder (formerly known as multiple personality disorder). However, in the book, the diagnosis King used was schizophrenia. Despite a common misconception that these two disorders are the same or similar, they are vastly different. This is what has been on my mind so much lately. I was so irritated with the misdiagnosis that I almost dropped the book and abandoned my journey to the Dark Tower.

Since then I’ve been thinking a lot about the portrayal of mental health in books (and television and film for that matter). And the question hanging on my mind is this: does it matter if the author gets it right?

I’m currently finishing my Master’s degree in Counseling Psychology, and one year of that time was spent as an intern counselor. Mental health is kinda my jam, so as a pre-Masters professional and mental health advocate, my initial reaction is to stand on the rooftops and shout, “Hell no! Get your shit together!” There are so many misconceptions out there about mental health and psychotherapy, and such misconceptions can affect whether an individual in need seeks appropriate care.

But…. how many other things are misrepresented in our books?

I recently read that there was a huge scientific error in The Martian regarding windstorms on Mars, which is ultimately what left Mark Watney stranded. I loved this book before I knew about this, and now having that knowledge hasn’t altered my opinion of the book. Are there astronauts, physicists and engineers racing to their rooftops for the same reasons I have? And how many procedural crime shows on TV today are riddled with procedural inaccuracies? I mean, seriously, in what world would the FBI give a psychologist a gun and send him out into the field? How many legal procedures are grossly simplified or outright wrong? (I could go on and on about some psychological aspects of these shows that also make me want to pull out my hair, but I’ll save that for another day.)

Hence my current dilemma. Should writers be getting mental health right, or do the laws of fiction allow some flexibility?

I would love to hear what you all have to say about this subject, readers!

4 thoughts on “Mental Health Musings: Do Authors Have to Get Everything Right?

  1. First, love the new blog look! Second, I think it’s always hard when you’re somewhat of an “expert” on a topic and you come across it in fiction and it’s not portrayed quite right, whereas the layperson would probably never notice that anything was wrong. This happened to me with The Vacationers and swimming…the author was WAY off on how many laps of a pool equal a mile and, I realize this is a nitpicky detail, but it drove me crazy.

    With King (and I haven’t read these particular books), could it also be that he was trying to portray a common misdiagnosis that happened frequently in real life? Regardless, I can see why this drove you nuts!

    1. One of the possible explanations that keeps coming to mind about King’s misdiagnosis is the book was written in the early 1980s. I’m not a mental health historian, but I know they’ve updated the diagnostic manuals a couple of times since then, so maybe it was a much less clear when he was writing.

      I definitely think you’re right about the “experts.” I’ve mostly been able to overlook (or at least eye roll quietly) when television shows get it wrong. I think the bee in my bonnet with this book was that it was written by Stephen King; I almost feel like he should know better.

      Also, thanks for the compliment!! 🙂

  2. It’s really hard when you’re an “expert” because you notice every.single.flaw. in the portrayal. But I can’t help but think, if it’s a major part of what the book/movie/whatever is about, how hard is it to find someone in that field to beta read for you? I mean, the Mozart in the Jungle tv series, for example – it’s about the classical music scene! It’s like they don’t even try to do things like hold their instruments correctly. Come on. So with King and this book, maybe the DSM was different, as you mentioned? Because certainly I’d expect him to chat with a psychiatrist or something as research (since we’re talking pre-internet and all) but if the DSM was different then, that’d explain it away. Kind of like reading C.S. Lewis’s Space Trilogy. We can give him a pass on the science-y details on getting to Mars, because it was written in the late 1930’s – we hadn’t even landed on the moon yet! 😉

    1. Haha, the instrument thing always gets me, too! 🙂

      I think you voiced perfectly what irks me about this – the diagnosis was instrumental enough in the book that Stephen King should have made sure to get his facts straight first. And considering that The Dark Tower series appears to have been revised since its release, certainly an update could have been made. I doubt very seriously that I’m the first person to notice this particular flaw, so I bet he or his publisher are aware of it.

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