Seven weeks into her first semester at Yale Law School, Elyn Saks LAW ’86 climbed out a window onto the roof of the Law School library, singing about dancing with demons in Florida.
Her schizophrenia was spinning out of control again. Eventually Saks managed to return to her room, where she worried about the memos she could not write and the mass murders she thought she would commit.
Saks, now a professor of law, psychology, psychiatry and the behavioral sciences at the University of Southern California’s Gould School of Law spoke to about 60 students and professors in the Law School’s faculty lounge Thursday about her struggle with chronic schizophrenia and how law and medicine interact in shaping treatment of the mentally ill.
The catered event — sponsored by the Office of Student Affairs, Yale Law Women and Yale Law School Law and Health — included a reading of several excerpts from her recently published memoir, “The Center Cannot Hold: My Journey Through Madness,” which TIME magazine named one of the top 10 non-fiction books of 2007.
The book, Saks said, aims both to offer hope to others with schizophrenia and to help those who do not suffer from mental illness to understand it better.
Saks said the initial symptoms of her condition began appearing around age six or seven, when she started to experience phobias, obsessions and night terrors. Her teen years brought a bout with anorexia and drug use that landed her in a daytime rehabilitation program, she said. Then she began hearing thoughts in her head that were not her own.
“It was as if my mind were a sand castle and all the sand were sliding away,” she said.
After graduating first in her class from Vanderbilt University, Saks began studying philosophy at Oxford on a Marshall Scholarship. That is when she really broke down. Stricken by depression and paranoia, the five-foot-ten Saks shriveled to 95 pounds, and she fantasized about dousing herself with gasoline and lighting herself on fire.
“I was a witch who deserved to be burned at the stake,” she said.
Through intense psychoanalytical treatment and medication, Saks was able to return to school and earn her masters in 1981.
At Yale, after her public breakdown on the roof of the law library, a professor took her to the emergency room, where she was bound to a gurney, constantly monitored and forcibly medicated. Contrasting the “benign neglect” of British hospitals’ hands-off approach, Saks said the American treatment was degrading and humiliating.
After five months she was released. She returned to Yale the following term and completed her degree in three years.
Saks, believing she could escape her illness if only she could live without medication, tried repeatedly to reduce her drug regimen, but each attempt failed. Her condition finally improved, she said, only after she accepted her illness.
“The more I accepted that I had a mental illness, the less it defined me,” she said.
Saks concluded by talking about the implications of her own experiences for public policy. She suggested that researchers find alternatives to mechanical restraint by studying ways to make patients want to seek help, and by providing legal incentives to doctors to use other methods.
She also discussed the difficulty of deciding under what circumstances, if any, people can be committed to treatment against their will, both from a medical and a legal perspective.
“Her policy recommendations are on the right track,” said Kelli Garcia LAW ’06, a fellow at the Law School who studies health law. “But as she said, she’s not a lobbyist. There needs to be more of a movement in terms of protecting the mentally ill.”
For law students in the audience, Saks’s scholarship, straddling the juncture of law and medicine, offered a broadening perspective on finding policy solutions to modern problems.
“There is a trend in law schools now of more and more empirical work,” Ben Gross LAW ’10 said.
Saks will speak again today at 10:15 a.m. at the Connecticut Mental Health Center auditorium at the Yale School of Medicine.