Schizophrenia is not sexy. It is not quirky and fun. It doesn’t sell papers or movies or magazines. When a celebrity discusses a mental health issue, it’s rarely schizophrenia. It often seems like the skeleton in the closet; it is too real, too frightening and too unpredictable. It is not portrayed as something you recover from—instead, it is portrayed as who you are, and who you are is dangerous.
I did not notice this until I was diagnosed with schizophrenia, but now I see it everywhere. The majority of representations I see of people with my experiences have been murderers in horror films or criminals in the newspaper (whose diagnoses are often more theoretical than actual—the general public hurrying to explain violent acts as caused by underlying mental illnesses). This is why I was so excited about Your Voice is All I Hear by Leah Scheier, a love story between two teenagers—one of whom has schizophrenia. I wanted to read something where schizophrenia was a part of life—a challenge, yes, but one that was humanized and incorporated into a larger story. I wanted to read a book in which schizophrenia was part of a whole and complicated character, not the sum total of their being. Your Voice is All I Hear is certainly well-written and compelling, and I appreciate Scheier’s efforts to portray a teen with schizophrenia in a positive and sympathetic light. After finishing the novel, however, I do not know if these efforts were completely successful.
Scheier’s novel tells the story of April, a creative Grade 10 girl, whose life changes when she meets Jonah. She is an awkward loner (following in the footsteps of many teen protagonists) and Jonah is the mysterious, handsome new kid. They form a connection right away, beginning an intense relationship that drives both of their artistic interests. Jonah is a gifted painter while April is a pianist and songwriter, and together they plan to audition for a prestigious art school. However, Jonah soon begins to display distressed, paranoid behaviour—hearing things that no one else can hear, suspecting teachers of being spies, worrying that someone is trying to control his thoughts. While at first April tries to hide Jonah’s behaviour from others—protecting him, she thinks—an altercation with the police leads to Jonah’s hospitalization in the psychiatric ward. After this traumatic incident, the story focuses on April’s attempts to support Jonah through his diagnosis with schizophrenia, all while facing resistance and fear from her friends and family. I won’t reveal the ending, although there are no shocking twists or surprises—just a grim and realistic journey through the mental health system, with all of its frustrations and tragedies. There is hope at the end, but it feels like a distant hope, shimmering and unreachable on some far-off horizon.
I admire Leah Scheier for writing a book like this for teenagers, as schizophrenia often manifests for the first time in adolescence. Your Voice is All I Hear would certainly familiarize readers with common symptoms, while normalizing schizophrenia as an illness like any other—not a mark of someone being “evil” or “crazy.” Jonah’s experiences were very similar to mine, which made this book a difficult read at times, but speaks to the depth of research conducted by the author. This medical accuracy is to be expected from Scheier, who is also a pediatrician, and who closes her novel by recommending advocacy and support organizations for individuals with schizophrenia.
However, it is obvious that this book’s target audience is not teenagers (or adults) with schizophrenia themselves. The focus is almost entirely on the pain that Jonah’s diagnosis causes April. For a reader who has lived through Jonah’s experience, I do not know how much this book would offer. At the end of the novel, April is a changed person who has found the strength to pursue her musical dreams. It’s great to see a female character develop more resilience and confidence, but in this case, it almost feels like Jonah’s illness is a tool for April’s self-actualization. I am certain it was not the author’s intent, but too many novels use characters with various medical conditions to teach the “normal” protagonist something about their own lives. This is a well-worn trope, and while April’s story certainly deserves to be told, this kind of story has been told before. Perhaps if the book had alternated between April’s and Jonah’s point-of view, readers would have had a more balanced understanding. As the story is narrated solely by April, however, the reader is never able to know what is going on in Jonah’s head. This reinforces the common perception of the individual with schizophrenia as someone removed from the general population—unknowable, and unknown.
Another issue I had was with the relationship between Jonah and April itself. They fall in love almost immediately, and no time is taken to explore why or what they mean to each other. Even their first dates are narrated in the past tense. We read that they were “best friends by the end of the first week” and “listened to music, studied for tests, watched movies on his laptop” but we don’t get to see any of these encounters firsthand. When Jonah began to have symptoms of psychosis, there was less at stake for me because I didn’t feel like I really knew him. It would have made for a longer novel, but without this deeper character development, the reader only gets to know Jonah in the hospital, where he is hostile and suspicious. While his behaviour is completely realistic, it doesn’t make him easy to root for, and lessens the impact of April’s efforts to save their relationship. Because the reader does not know Jonah in the way April claims to, he is reduced to just a person with schizophrenia. All we see are his symptoms, when he is obviously much more than that; we all are.
I was glad to have read this novel, and I’m grateful it exists. It means that people are talking about conditions that have been stigmatized and feared for too long. I might recommend it as an educational text for readers who want to learn more about mental illness, but not for people living with schizophrenia, or anyone looking for a star-crossed romance (which is me, always). Your Voice is All I Hear is not a love story, because love is not its focus. It is a story about schizophrenia, and the far-reaching effects it has on both Jonah and the people who love him. It is a hard story to read, without any easy answers or happy endings—and I wanted a happy ending so badly. I wanted a happy ending because I want to believe these endings are possible, regardless of the medications you take or the voices you hear. I’m not trying to suggest that every novel has to be all calm seas and happiness; that is obviously not the story that Scheier was trying to tell. It just feels like characters with schizophrenia have had so few happy endings in literature and film and television. Surely, it is not beyond the realm of possibility that someone with a mental illness could save the day, and get the girl. Surely, more astonishing things have happened in this mad, mad world.
Schizophrenia may not be “sexy,” but it is a part of life—part of a larger story. I thought this book would tell that story, but it did not. I will keep waiting for the novel that portrays schizophrenia as just one facet of a colourful, complicated person, and gives characters like Jonah the opportunity to have their own voices heard. I will keep waiting for our happy ending.