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Review of "Lisa, Bright and Dark"

By John Neufeld
Puffin, 1969
Review by Christian Perring, Ph.D. on Nov 26th 2001
Lisa, Bright and Dark

Now 32 years old, Lisa, Bright and Dark, a novel about a girl's mental illness, aimed at younger readers, has not aged well. Teen readers will probably be mystified by references to Simon and Garfunkel, Sly and the Family Stone, the Doors, The Graduate, Sudddenly, Last Summer, and Hair. They will find it hard to believe that anyone every really used the exclamations and adjectives "groovy," "bull," "screwy," and "Zowee!" But more than these superficial barriers, they will probably not recognize the kind of health care system portrayed in the book.

Lisa is a disturbed teen, whose parents will not listen to her. In apparent efforts to get the attention of others, her behavior becomes increasingly bizarre, including attacking one of her friends and walking through a plate glass window. Her friends have all sorts of theories about what Lisa's problem is, and Mary Nell reads up on textbook psychiatry, coming up with a theory of paranoid schizophrenia. Lisa does seem to hear voices, sometimes she talks in different voices too, she does not sleep and she gets very angry at inappropriate times.

Betsy, M.N. and Elizabeth, all teen girls in the same grade as Lisa, join together to help their friend. They go to the school counselor, who is not much help. They go to their parents, but are fobbed off. They try to talk with Lisa and give her a group of people with whom she can feel safe. Eventually things get serious enough for adults to start paying attention, and a therapist of one of the girls comes to the rescue.

These children appear to be from wealthy families where the father goes out to work and the mother keeps house. Alcohol, drugs, school violence and guns are not mentioned as problems at all, and there's one brief mention of teen pregnancy. Presumably if a girl had serious psychiatric problems these days, she would either end up in the emergency room of a local hospital, she would make an appointment at a community mental health center, she might join a group of other troubled teens for some kind of therapy, or she would have enter into the maze of managed care treatment. It's very likely that she would early on receive a prescription for some medication, such as an anti-anxiety drug or an antidepressant.

In this novel, Lisa is first sent to a rest home mainly for old people and at the end she goes in for an extended hospitalization of six months or more. Of course, these days the only long-stay psychiatric hospitals left are for those with the most untreatable conditions, and most of the hospitals to which Lisa might have been sent in the late 1960s have been closed down for decades.

So the world has changed a great deal since when this book was first released. It is more useful as a historical document than as a guide about what to do if one of your friends has a serious mental disorder. Maybe the one feature that remains relevant today is the value of remaining open and friendly to someone with a mental illness, even if she behaves bizarrely and does not make any sense.

© 2001 Christian Perring. First Serial Rights.

    Christian Perring, Ph.D., is Chair of the Philosophy Department at Dowling College, Long Island. He is editor of Metapsychology Online Review. His main research is on philosophical issues in psychiatry. He is especially interested in exploring how philosophers can play a greater role in public life. He is available to give talks on many philosophical or controversial issues in mental health.

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