Elyn Saks’ Inspiring Memoir on Schizophrenia


Elyn Saks Publishes Her Inspiring Memoir on Schizophrenia

Elyn Saks published her inspiring memoir on schizophrenia way back in 2007. Titled “The Center Cannot Hold: My Journey Through Madness”, “it became an overnight sensation in mental health circles and a best seller, and it won Dr. Saks a $500,000 MacArthur Foundation “genius” award.” With the MacArthur money, she founded the Saks Institute for mental health Law, Policy and Ethics to study mental health and society. (Carey, 2011) Elyn Saks was then a professor of law and psychiatry at the University of Southern California.

Photo of Elyn Saks, who wrote an inspiring memoir on schizophrenia
Elyn Saks

The real spinoff benefits for psychiatric field came from her speaking tour. At the mental health conferences, Dr. Saks “attracted not only doctors and therapists, but also high-functioning people with the same diagnosis as herself — a fellowship of fans, some of whom have volunteered to participate in studies.” (Carey, 2011)

But it was not all smooth sailing. In fact, in the beginning she did not receive a whole lot of encouragement with regard to the publishing of the book. So much so that, the book was almost abandoned. Dr. Saks got very mixed advice from friends and colleagues for years before publishing it. Her husband was against publishing it because he felt the risks were too high. Academic colleagues, too, warned her about going public with her diagnosis of schizophrenia, which could harm her. The only support she received was from her friend Stephen Behnke, director of ethics at the American Psychological Association. And, publish she did.

About The Center Cannot Hold

“’There are so many myths about the illness,’ she says. ‘Most people are too worried about the stigma to come out as schizophrenics, but until they do, there won’t be role models for others.’” (Anderson, 2007)

The Center Cannot Hold, Elyn Saks’ inspiring memoir on schizophrenia, eloquently describes her moving story starting from the first time that she heard voices speaking to her as a young teenager. It goes on to describe her attempted suicides in college, through learning to live on her own as an adult in an often terrifying world. There is frank discussion in it of her paranoia, the inability to tell imaginary fears from real ones, and the voices in her head telling her to kill herself (and to harm others). In addition, it recounts the incredibly difficult obstacles she overcame to become a highly respected professional. (Amazon, n.d.)

Elyn Saks’ Battle with Schizophrenia

In The Center Cannot Hold, Elyn Saks chronicles her own struggle with schizophrenia as an inspiration to thers. The battle began with early symptoms at age 8 and has continued throughout her life; she had her first full-blown episodes during her terms at Oxford and Yale.

Saks writes evocatively about schizophrenia thus. “Schizophrenia rolls in like a slow fog, becoming imperceptibly thicker as time goes on. At first, the day is bright enough, the sky is clear, the sunlight warms your shoulders. But soon, you notice a haze beginning to gather around you, and the air feels not quite so warm. After a while, the sun is a dim light bulb behind a heavy cloth. The horizon has vanished into a grey mist and you feel a thick dampness in your lungs as you stand, cold and wet, in the afternoon dark …” (Saks, 2007)

What worked against her was that “The sunny, open, Latin-tinged mores of Miami [where she grew up], combined with the Old South graciousness of Nashville’s Vanderbilt University [where Saks studied as an undergraduate], seemed a world away in the far older and more courtly enclaves of Oxford.” (Saks, 2007)

Recounting her troubles then, Saks writes thus. “From time to time, I got together with another woman in the dorms. She was from Canada and initially our friendship looked quite promising. But something was happening to me – something that had begun the summer before – that short-circuited our budding friendship: I was finding it difficult to speak. Literally, the words in my head would not come out of my mouth. Our dinner conversations grew increasingly one-sided and I was reduced almost totally to nodding in agreement, feigning a full mouth and trying to express whatever I was thinking with my face. The friendship trickled away.” (Saks, 2007)

The Worsening of Symptoms

As she grew steadily more isolated, she began to mutter and gesticulate to herself while walking down the street. Saks writes, “What was real, what was not? I couldn’t decipher the difference and it was exhausting. I could not concentrate on my academic work. [Also], I could not understand what I was reading, nor was I able to follow the lectures. And I certainly couldn’t write anything intelligible. So I would write something unintelligible, just to have a paper to hand to my tutor each time we met. Understandably, my tutor was flummoxed.” (Saks, 2007)

It was around this time that her friend Jean sensed from telephone conversations with her that something was going very wrong. It also became clear to Jean that Saks was struggling with thoughts of wanting to hurt herself. Jean suggested that she talk to a doctor about seeing a psychiatrist. But, Saks would have none of it. “Oh, no, I’m not crazy or anything. I’m just kind of … stuck,” was how Saks responded. However, on the inside, another dialogue was going on: “I am bad, not mad. Even if I were sick, which I’m not, I don’t deserve to get help. I am unworthy.” (Saks, 2007)

A few weeks later Jean’s fiancé, Richard, came into town. Richard was a neurologist. He proceeded to ask Saks some direct and probing questions, such as about her sleeping and eating habits, her anhedonia, etc. From her answers, it became clear to Richard that she needed to consult a psychiatrist right away.

However, Elyn was not so convinced. She merely thanked them for their concern and said she would “think about everything they’d said”. But, she was not persuaded.

Elyn Saks Comes to Terms with her Mental Illness

However, later when she produced a four-page paper of “pure drivel, gobbledygook, junk”, and started having thoughts of suicide that she realized the gravity of the situation. She at once contacted her general practitioner, Dr. Johnson. She told Dr. Johnson that she was depressed and needed to see a psychiatrist.

To begin with, Dr. Johnson perhaps merely saw a stressed out student. But, as he proceeded to question her about her symptoms and as she graphically described her plans to carry out suicide, Dr. Johnson promptly got her an appointment at Warneford, the psychiatric division of Oxford’s medical school.

But, given her strong opinion that “all mind-altering drugs are bad” it took a while before she agreed to take treatment for schizophrenia in the form of medication. And then, she was on the road to recovery.

Elyn Saks Learns to Live with Schizophrenia

Elyn Saks grew up in Miami in the 1960s. Born to loving, middle-class parents, she was an A-grade student. Yet, her happy childhood was marred by episodes of obsessive behavior and night terrors. Her grip on reality began to loosen when she became an undergraduate student at Vanderbilt University. But, her academic record continued to remain stellar and she graduated as class valedictorian. Not only that, she even won a Marshall scholarship to study philosophy at Oxford. Then, as fate would have it, when she reached the shores of England the early symptoms worsened into full blown symptoms of schizophrenia, as described in her autobiography, The Centre Cannot Hold. (Anderson, 2007)

Today, Elyn Saks is in a happy zone – blissfully married with an impressive career as an endowed professor of law at the University of Southern California, an adjunct professor of psychiatry at the University of California and a research clinical associate at the New Centre for Psychoanalysis in Los Angeles. To boot, she is also a survivor of a stroke and cancer. She feels that ‘for an unlucky person, I’ve been amazingly lucky.’ What helped her keep schizophrenia in check were medication, psychoanalysis, plenty of solitary time, strong personal relationships, and an active professional life. She still experiences transient psychotic thoughts, often more than once daily, “but I’m usually able to say, ‘Oh, that’s my illness’ and distract myself”. (Anderson, 2007)


Amazon, n.d. The Center Cannot Hold: My Journey Through Madness. [Online]
Available at: https://www.amazon.com/Center-Cannot-Hold-Journey-Through/dp/1401309445
[Accessed 19 Feb 2020].

Anderson, H., 2007. Beating the odds: Elyn’s life. [Online]
Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2007/sep/02/biography.features
[Accessed 19 Feb 2020].

Carey, B., 2011. Memoir About Schizophrenia Spurs Others to Come Forward. [Online]
Available at: https://www.nytimes.com/2011/10/23/health/23livesside.html
[Accessed 19 Feb 2020].

Saks, E., 2007. My nightmare in the city of dreaming spires. [Online]
Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2007/sep/02/biography.features
[Accessed 19 Feb 2020].


Elyn Saks’ Inspiring Memoir on Schizophrenia
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Elyn Saks’ Inspiring Memoir on Schizophrenia
Elyn Saks published her inspiring memoir on schizophrenia way back in 2007. Titled “The Center Cannot Hold”, “it became an overnight sensation.
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