Electronic Thesis and Dissertation Repository

Thesis Format



Doctor of Philosophy




Phu, Thy


This dissertation explores representations of trauma and mental distress in twentieth-century novels and films. Drawn on research that emphasizes the ways that marginalized communities—in particular women-coded, racialized, and Indigenous persons—have historically been pathologized, the thesis considers how select novels and films query biomedical approaches to mental illness and critique psychiatric contexts, which prioritize social control more than they provide substantive and humane forms of support and care. How might representations of trauma and mental distress be understood without confirming regimes of psy-authority or psy-power? The thesis takes up this core issue by building on theories drawn from Mad Studies, illuminating the ways in which mental strain and political dissent—which respectively arise from and respond to racialized and gendered forms of oppressions—are in these fictional works, pathologized as individual biomedical illnesses. Through close readings of these works, the thesis contends that a psychiatric framework, in effect, obscures the underlying traumatic causes of “madness,” trivializes mental strain, neutralizes dissent, and perpetuates injustice. In my analysis, I also bring to light alternative ways of interpreting supposed symptoms of mental illness in fiction, which, I contend, can be seen as creative coping mechanisms or responses to racialized forms of trauma, which are often linked to gender-based violence and rooted in systemic inequalities. The first two chapters centre gendered and racialized diagnostic practices in post-WWII psychiatry, focusing on shell shock in Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, John Okada’s No-No Boy, and Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony and multiple personality in two films—Three Faces of Eve and Frankie & Alice. These chapters take up how normative prescriptions of sanity during the post-WWII period are defined according to whiteness, colonial masculinity, idealized notions of femininity, and heteronormativity. The second part of the dissertation examines texts in which psychiatric diagnoses pathologize political resistance as a biomedical mental illness to thwart critiques of social inequalities. I consider the significance of schizophrenia in the 1960s context of the U.S. Black Power movement, focusing on Virginia Hamilton’s The Planet of Junior Brown and Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye. In the final chapter, I turn to how sanist discourses unfold in the transnational context of the global War on Terror, as taken up in Rawi Hage’s novel, Cockroach. Here, I consider how this context extends and updates the white male paranoia endemic of Cold War novels for an era marked by terrorism—a threat projected on brown men. Ironically, a nationalist paranoid discourse deems brown men to be paranoid. Through close reading, the dissertation explains how select novels and films provide a means of countering and critiquing normalizing what Mad Studies describes as “sanist” discourses. Ultimately, the thesis illuminates how these works reimagine care and mental health, long mired in heteronormative white patriarchy, to better align with social justice aims of anti-racism, anti-colonialism, anti-imperialism, and anti-misogyny.

Summary for Lay Audience

This dissertation considers what might be missing by only talking about mental illness in terms of symptoms, diagnoses, and medical practices. Instead, it looks at literature and film that offer more complicated narratives of what lived experiences of mental illness look like beyond medicine. Our mental health is affected when we experience traumatic events. How do characters respond to trauma in creative ways? What alternative coping mechanisms do they use when psychiatry does not offer them helpful treatment? How has trauma been misdiagnosed or left untreated? Literature and film are good resources for exploring such questions because people can tell stories based on their personal experiences and explain their perspective that might otherwise be overlooked in medicine, such as their gender, race, ethnicity, sexuality, etc. The aim of this project is to illustrate how literature and film show the ways that mental health services are ineffective or limited, and how they might be more helpful if they are re-structured around responding to trauma more effectively. Because definitions of mental illness change over time, it is important to understand this history. The first chapter looks at shell shock for African American veterans in Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, Japanese American veterans in John Okada’s No-No Boy, and Indigenous veterans in Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony. In the second chapter, I turn to two films—Three Faces of Eve (dir. Nunnally Johnson) and Frankie & Alice (dir. Geoffrey Sax) that depict a rare condition that predominantly affects women, called multiple personality caused by childhood trauma. Then, in the third chapter, I consider how racism effects Black children in two novels: Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye and Virginia Hamilton’s The Planet of Junior Brown. Finally, I examine paranoia in the context of the Global War on Terror and racialized refugees in Canada with Rawi Hage’s Cockroach.