Book Review: Pills, Prose and Poetry - A Life with Schizophrenia (Rebecca Chamaa)

Reviewed by Michael Uniacke

There is a litany of offensive terms that have been used to describe people with schizophrenia. They are not hard to find and many are still being used, "dangerous" and "unpredictable" being some of the milder terms. This language illustrates the way in which of all the mental illnesses, schizophrenia seems to be the most inexplicable, and more than a little terrifying.

Rebecca Chamaa knows this only too well. Her remarkable book of mixed genres, Pills Poetry & will Prose: Life with Schizophrenia lays it down from the heart and from her poet’s mind. She reveals the turbulence of remembering herself, before her psychotic episodes, as a poet and wishing to regain what she describes a "magical time" in her life.

Pills, Poetry & Prose is the result of Chamaa’s decision to go public with something she has kept secret for 21 years: she has paranoid schizophrenia. The book mixes prose extracts with poetry, loosely categorised into segments, and with a distinctive expository aspect to her work. Chamaa frequently addresses the reader, explicitly so in a gentle, sadly-tinged but determined ‘Letter to the Reader’.

The prose extract, "The Birth of June", is particularly riveting. She introduces June, the name she gives to her psychosis. Chamaa does not speculate on why June entered her life, but she tells in terrifying detail the exploits of a relentless and demonic entity that nearly ended her life.

In this book, her prose works better than her poetry. At times the poems become lines of prose of random thoughts and images. Apart from generalised themes of childhood, hospitals and everyday life (and funny-sad account of a marriage), there is a lack of a theme to hold these poems together.

The poetry does work best when Chamaa becomes a spokesperson for a very marginalised group, people with schizophrenia who also have self-awareness and the guts to express what was happening. This extract from "Don’t Stuff Me into an Antique Container" is particularly effective:

It’s uncomfortable
to know you can’t point out crazy
that’s because we aren’t.
We are every day
people like you
Who have been stuffed in a too small
Container Outdated an
d mislabelled.

An underdeveloped area is the role of Chamaa’s husband, Jean-Claude. We get glimpses of his terror when June becomes brutal. He has a patience that at times seems infinite. He is a man who does not give up, and Chamaa describes him thus:

My husband is a warrior
In the game
Keeping guard of all my symptoms
So they don’t expose
My truth

Games have players, not warriors, who belong to battles. Otherwise this is another tantalising hint of an opportunity for a fuller account of the destructive effect of this malevolent illness.

Yet it is impossible not to be intensely moved by this extraordinary work. Chamaa doesn’t try to explain why this happened; maybe the need to explain is far less important than the need to convey the epic struggle to regain what she was:

I was once a young woman with a dream. I will honor that woman, and strive to achieve a piece or part of what she was capable of. I will reach back in time and take her hand. Although I don’t recognize her in me anymore, she is my guide and I trust her. I miss her too. She was fearless, and passionate, and trusted the world and everyone in it.

Rebecca Chamaa kept her secret of paranoid schizophrenia for 21 years. In this brave and gutsy revelation, she gives us extraordinary insights into the humanity of those stricken with something horrific that is almost beyond imagining.

Title: Pills Poetry & Prose: Life with Schizophrenia
Author: Rebecca Chamaa
Publisher: Booklocker
Publication Date: 2015


Michael Uniacke is an Australian author and sign language translator who blogs at The Unquarded Quarter. He is the author of one novella The Quest for Edith Ackers and two recently published memoirs, Deafness Down and Deafness Gains. An interview with Uniacke about his writing can be read in this issue of Wordgathering.