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Annita Sawyer

Annita Sawyer

"The Crazy One"
Winner of the Burns Archive Prize for Nonfiction, 2012
Selected by Susan Orlean


What inspired you to write “The Crazy One”?

The dinner with Sarah deeply affected me. I thought about it for years. One compelling piece was the image of two senior therapists—usually the strong ones, the ones others assume are together and without problems—feeling so vulnerable, risking so much to confide in each other. The other piece was the extraordinary relief at discovering we weren’t alone. I was determined to capture the power of that encounter. I couldn’t let it go.

How did your training and work as a psychologist influence your writing of “The Crazy One”?

Meticulous observation of interaction between me and the person I’m engaged with is at the center of my work as a psychologist. Progress shows in tiny increments. Also, I see firsthand the crippling effects of shame.

How do you think mental illness is viewed in the United States today? How has that changed over the years?

Mental illness is much more out in the open than it used to be. Movies and TV shows, even ads for medication, which I object to, have made psychiatric symptoms and suffering part of everyday conversation. Mental illness still carries significant stigma, but gradually, especially among young people, it is diminishing.

How does the setting of “The Crazy One” (dinner at a restaurant) influence the way the piece reads?

As the setting in which the actual event took place, the restaurant and dinner gave me an easy frame. Initially the menu was the safest thing we shared. Dinner worked as an anchor. I took side trips to illustrate my thoughts, but when I returned, the food was waiting where I’d left it. It kept me located. I worried that the dessert ending might seem too pat, but that was how it happened.

The concept of “secrets” is a strong theme throughout your piece. How does that influence the way the piece unfolds?

I wanted to write about the power of secrets and the power of shame and how they go together. The essay grew as I associated to a number of scenes involving secrets. I learned about Long Termers’ Day listening to a dinner conversation at an artists’ residency. At that moment the pieces fell into place, my picture of the whole essay gelled.

This is nonfiction. How do you handle issues of confidentiality?

I’m learning as I go. Both women whose stories I include in “The Crazy One” gave me permission to write about their experience. I showed them what I’d written early in the process. However, I never expected the story to become public in a major way—I assumed my clinical and literary worlds would not cross paths. I was quite naive. As for my personal confidentiality, I remain ambivalent about revealing myself and my past. I want to confront shame and do my part to change the culture. Yet I recognize the reality of stigma and don’t want to compromise myself. I’ve been speaking to clinical audiences about this for the past few years. It’s still scary, but increasingly less so.

Do you structure your writing before you write, or do you begin by writing freely?

I tend to begin with a germ of an idea—I often see it as a picture—and start writing. I don’t know where I’ll end up. Many of my pieces are narrative essays, adapted from the memoir I just completed. For those, the picture comes from a particular experience, but I’m still unsure of where it will take me.

What is your biggest challenge as a writer?

I have a full-time psychology practice, which is deeply rewarding but also time consuming. Time to write is precious and hard to come by. My biggest challenge is to maintain a regular writing schedule, to take my writing seriously—consider it legitimate, not self-indulgent—and to guard those precious hours every week.

Which writers influence you? Were there any writers who specifically influenced “The Crazy One”?

I’m fascinated by how other people think, so I love to read essays and memoirs. I Never Promised You a Rose Garden, which I read in a psych hospital in 1965, has long been an inspiration, first for my recovery and later for writing about it. Sherwin Nuland, Kay Jamison, Lauren Slater, and Annie Rogers come to mind as clinician writers I admire who have referred to personal illness in their work. Essays by Phillip Lopate, Scott Russell Sanders, and Kim Dana Kupperman have influenced me directly. The final version of “The Crazy One” came together after a conversation with Margot Livesey in which she asked perceptive questions I set about to answer.

What are you currently reading?

Margot Livesey’s The Flight of Gemma Hardy and The Unsayable by Annie Rogers.

Purchase the issue containing Annita's essay.