A fascinating essay from Maxine Mei-Fung Chung,
author of The Eighth Girl
With her debut novel The Eighth Girl, Maxine Mei-Fung Chung has deftly created an intelligent contemporary thriller, woven with a multilayered and compelling exploration of Dissociative Identity Disorder. Recently optioned for development for Netflix, this is destined to become one of the most talked about thrillers of 2021.
Especially for Foyles Maxine has written a fascinating essay where she shares her process in writing the novel while working as a practicing psychoanalytic psychotherapist, and how it really is time that Dissociative Identity Disorder is presented empathetically across the media.
An Unquiet Mind: The Power of Fiction for Exploring Mental illness
The stigma had to go. A weary shorthand for human distress and hurting, it was far too denouncing, so Alexa Wú made herself known to me demanding that I listen up, take note and make her multiple shapes on the page. On weekends, fresh mornings and any free time between patients she insisted on my complete attention and invited herself to occupy my thoughts and imagination. I had sat, for too many years, with patients who believed their diagnosis of Dissociative Identity Disorder—previously known as Multiple Personality Disorder—was misrepresented in the culture, or worse, disbelieved. Patients shared how unseen they felt, how misunderstood and pathologized they still were. I took my character by the hand and made a commitment to sit with her while I attempted to find words that would do her, and my patients, justice.
When asked about the inspiration behind The Eighth Girl, more questions have followed: Had I always wanted to be an author, to write a suspense novel, a thriller? Was character more important, or plot? Did I know the ending before I’d finished writing the novel? What research did I undertake to write with authenticity?
The truth is it took me at least four years to finally admit to myself that I was writing a novel. As a psychotherapist, my role has been to listen to stories, not to tell them. Yet in witnessing and listening to the crimes committed against my patients, I cannot help but feel that whilst there is breath in my body I will write and advocate for people who are living with mental illness. I haven’t always wanted to be an author, but I can’t help but write. Plot scares me but I love character development. I didn’t know the ending before I finished my novel, but my character did. And my research was far reaching, and heartbreaking.
And so I gathered my notes. Boiled the coffee. And set sail the story of a woman whom crimes had been committed against. That was all I had. I didn’t set out to riff with thriller beats, or to architect suspenseful end of chapter hooks. Twists to short-circuit a brain. I encouraged Alexa Wú, my protagonist, to lead the way.
Previously, people living with a diagnosis of DID have been portrayed as serial killers, or psychopaths. But the simple truth is those living with DID are more likely to be the victims of crime, not the ones who commit them. I was also aware of how, in patriarchal terms, language and representation is restricted to writing about women and not for them. I attempted to lean into this void and set out to create a protagonist who was not only living with mental illness but was also a heroine. Alexa Wú, I decided, would not be dehumanised, or kill anyone. Her capacity to love, and to be loved, was also integral to the story.
As I managed a dicey balance between my work as a psychotherapist and my desire to research and write The Eighth Girl, I experienced my days as too short frequently telling myself I simply needed more hours in the day. More time to think. And quickly turned this frustration and restlessness into fuel. I also sought out more stories that covered mental illness, specifically DID, and Asian heroines, re-discovering classics like Jekyll and Hyde, The Yellow Wallpaper, The Bell Jar, Sybil, When rabbit howls, though not many others. There were even fewer Asian protagonists.
As a child I read Enid Blyton and Judy Blume. Later; Steinbeck, Golding, Hardy, Orwell, Le Guin and Lee. Then came the Brontë’s, Du Maurier, Austen and Woolf. However, as I hit my stride in my narrow adolescence I began to realise I wasn’t connecting to the majority of white protagonists I was reading. I needed to expand my experience and went in search to find writers of colour. Within a year I was clutching the mighty words of James Baldwin, Yang Jiang, Ann Petry, Audre Lorde, Maxine Hong Kingston, Zora Neale Hurston and belle hooks. Their voices had me sat up straight—mind alert, heart swelling. With their words on my shelves I plucked any thread of want and belonging and weaved a whole new world. My body felt relief for having books that offered diverse voices and storytelling to which I could relate.
The power of fiction, I believe, has offered me the freedom to write about and examine a life with mental illness, and the acute trauma of existing in a misogynist world. Alexa Wú’s story asks questions about identity and stigma with an underlying call to arms for the prioritisation of mental health in our currently overwhelmed National Health Service. Because fiction is truth. It comforts the troubled and troubles those who have gotten too comfortable. Never get too comfortable. It's a curse.
As I prepare for publication of The Eighth Girl, I have been asked if I have a sense of how timely my debut novel is considering world events, the pandemic, and the rapid rise of suicide due to mental illness and the hate crimes against Asian people. The heartbreaking and infuriating reality is that stigma around mental illness and structural racism have always lain beneath the veneer—and sometimes not so much—of our living, and they are erupting now. So whilst I do believe The Eighth Girl is timely, I’d say these issues are timeless. They continue to exist with only moments of protest and upheaval in a seemingly never-ending cycle.
DID themes can be found right across the entertainment landscape. Perhaps if we are to better understand the condition we need to cease portraying those living with the disorder as psychopaths or wall-crawling lunatics. Only then will people living with dissociated personalities step forward and share with us their experience, and what it’s really like living with an unquiet mind. Greater understanding of the condition is needed for sure, so rather than fetishising these behaviours let’s listen and be guided by those who know best. And rather than speaking about people with mental illness, let’s speak for people with mental illness. Let’s ditch the serial killer trope, and spend a little more time creating our next hero or heroine and their many, many misunderstood selves.
Maxine Mei-Fung Chung is a psychoanalytic psychotherapist, clinical supervisor and training psychotherapist. She lectures on trauma, gender and sexuality, clinical dissociation and attachment theory at the Bowlby Centre and was awarded the Jafar Kareem Bursary for her work supporting people from ethnic minorities experiencing isolation and mental health problems. Originally trained in the arts, she previously worked as a creative director for ten years at Conde Nast, The Sunday Times and The Times. Maxine completed the Faber Academy advanced novel-writing course and currently works in private practice, where she has a particular interest in the creative feminine, advocating for women and girls finding a voice. She lives in London with her son.