A DANGER TO HERSELF AND OTHERS
by Alyssa Sheinmel
Sourcebooks Inc, 338 Pages
reviewed by Kristie Gadson
Hannah Gold was supposed to be enjoying everything California had to offer; getting ahead on her studies at a collegiate summer program; hiking through the mountains and sunbathing on the beach; enjoying her summer with her roommate and new best friend, Agnes. That is, until Agnes falls and lapses into a coma, and Hannah finds herself institutionalized in a seven-foot by eight-foot room, where she doesn’t feel she’s supposed to be at all.
Alyssa Sheinmel’s engrossing novel A Danger to Herself and Others, is an intriguing page-turner set almost entirely within the walls of a mental institution. It delves deep into Hannah’s mind as she wrestles, not only with what happened the night of Agnes’ fall, but with her own mental state.
Reminiscent of Ken Kesey’s classic novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Hannah is this story’s R.P. McMurphy – the intelligent, conniving, and self-proclaimed “sane” protagonist of her own narrative.
She goes about her first days studying her surroundings, taking note of certain privileges that will get her ever closer to freedom (group showers, cafeteria access, and grounds privileges), as well as keeping her conversations with the psychiatrist to a perfectly-tailored minimum so as not to arouse further suspicion and expedite her release. “…I don’t want [the doctor] to think I have anything to hide.” After all, she’s not really a danger to herself and others. What happened to Agnes was an accident. Hannah wouldn’t hurt a fly.
Then Lucy Quintana arrives as her new roommate – a reserved ballet dancer with an eating disorder, and the girl Hannah sees as her potential new best friend (save for Agnes, but as far as Hannah knows she’s still comatose.) Lucy becomes Hannah’s only friend – her best friend —and the one hope Hannah has of escaping the institution for good. The plan? For Hannah to show the doctor how good of a friend she is to Lucy, for the doctor to then see how Hannah couldn’t have possibly harmed Agnes on purpose, and for everyone (her parents, Agnes’ parents, and the judge at her upcoming hearing) to see that this was all a huge misunderstanding.
However, Lucy’s arrival becomes more than what Hannah bargained for. Lucy isn’t what she seems and, through their interactions, Hannah encounters the painful realization of why she was institutionalized. Much like McMurphy, she realizes that the system she is trying to game has been gaming her from the beginning. With no way out, Hannah faces the hard questions she’s been avoiding. What really happened the night Agnes fell? And, more importantly, what is happening with her mind?
Through Hannah’s experiences, Sheinmel opens the door to much more than a gripping story. She invites the reader to step into a larger conversation about mental illness itself: a subject that’s been cloaked in public fear and misunderstanding for centuries. Though Sheinmel isn’t the first to address such a daunting subject, she does so beautifully and sensitively, drawing a wide audience of readers to better understand what having mental illness is like—both for those who suffer from it and those who don’t.
For those of us with mental illness, we identify with Hannah. We walk in her shoes as she endures the stages of grief that come with diagnosis, and the denial, anger, and hopelessness that come with living with it. And, for readers fortunate enough to have never experienced mental illness, Sheinmel opens a world where readers can begin to understand the language regarding the subject (“a disease, a mental condition”), as well as the defeat one feels when having to take medication to keep it in check – an admission of what is wrong, and the question of who you really are without it.
“So then if we alter our brain – through drugs, alcohol, injury (Agnes),
or antipsychotics (me) – are we less of our true selves than we were before?”
This book isn’t the definitive book on mental illness, but it deserves to reside among the greatest who have tackled the subject. As readers close the book, they’ll find that Hannah’s story is open ended. We don’t know what the world holds for her, what challenges she’ll face, or how she’ll continue to live her life. But, the ending is honest, truthful and, ultimately, realistic. For those of us who struggle with mental illness, we don’t know what the next day holds, we don’t know which days we’ll triumph or fall, and we don’t know what treatment will be like a year from now, five years from now, or even ten. The whole process is something to be taken day by day, marking our progress along the way while remaining grounded in the present.
A Danger to Herself and Others is a wonderful, suspenseful read that does more than just tell a riveting story. The book opens the door to a larger narrative and seeks to cultivate compassion and understanding toward other, real-life stories just like Hannah’s.
Kristie Gadson is a recent graduate of the University of Pennsylvania with a Bachelor’s in English. When she’s not trying to justify why she’s browsing the children’s book section of Barnes & Noble, she’s drawing cartoons, playing with her cats, writing short stories, and binge-watching Netflix like a true millennial.