Spoiler Alert: this post contains spoilers. Big time. Read the book first.
I have just finished reading The Guy, The Girl, The Artist and His Ex by Gabrielle Williams. It is a fantastic book based on the real-life theft of Picasso’s Weeping Woman from the NGV in 1986. Williams has done terrific work researching the events, as she expands upon in the acknowledgements. Her work is amazing, but is it fair to Estelle (the protagonists mother) or to those with mental illness?
Writing a book is hard. In weaving a plot and creating relatable characters it is impossible to make everyone happy. Williams’ work has gone a long way to bring the theft to life but along the way she has misrepresented mental illness in a fundamental and unsympathetic way.
Estelle is undeniably psychotic. My very limited and hasty research into psychosis indicates that this is a possible (although extremely rare) consequence of a tragedy, such as the loss of a son. The information in this article indicates that psychosis affects about 1% of the population worldwide.
Williams does not go into the specifics of Estelle’s mental health so it isn’t possible to know if she has schizophrenia before her son’s death or if her psychosis is the result of his death. If the former is the case then it is tragic that someone suffering such a loss, while also being at the mercy of a terrible condition, should be left to cope with such little support. If the latter is the case then it seems more likely that she is suffering from Brief Psychotic Disorder in which case the events of the novel are extremely unlikely – recurrent episodes are very rare making her an atypical sufferer of a rare subset of a rare condition.
Mental illness in the book
Estelle is framed as the villain in this book. She is characterised as having created her situation through her mindset and being unwilling to change it. Her brother Moritz is the most damning (although finding anything positive written about her in the book is a challenge), telling Rafi, “She’s always been a shit mother to you. She never stopped thinking about Tonio long enough to see what she had right in front of her.’ In fact, Estelle is not responsible for her condition. Her condition is responsible for her behavior.
Estelle is not deliberately obsessing over her son, she is delusional. Delusions are false beliefs that are resistant to logical or rational information – in this case, the belief that she is being haunted by a folk-tale of a horse-headed woman who drowns children. Sure, the characters live in a less enlightened time in regards to mental illness but we don’t. Authors can choose to frame conditions in sympathetic ways while maintaining historical authenticity.
The missing chapter(s)
Williams’ book is missing the chapter or chapters that let Estelle off the hook for being a person suffering from delusions. She isn’t responsible for them and her life up until the conclusion of the novel has, and will continue to be, ruined by them. It is fair to say that Rafi would be pretty upset about the impact of her mum’s condition on her life. It would be equally fair for Moritz to be unhappy about it. It would certainly be fair for Penny to be overcome by anger and resentment about it. It is not fair for her to be called a ‘psycho mum’, a ‘crazy person’ or a ‘shit mum’ to a contemporary young adult audience without the context above.
Perhaps the book could have included a post-script about mental illness. Perhaps there could have been chapters that show readers Estelle’s point of view. Or maybe the book could conclude with notes on her court case absolving her of responsibility due to her mental state.
These may make the book longer and more complicated but also fairer. Without the literary talent to write such additions, I am just putting this post here to draw attention to this side of the story.