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    Rhetoric Through Mental Illness

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    “In the end, there was no metaphor for Charlie. The most important thing was simply to be there near him and allow who he really was to sink in. If I really wanted to know him, I had to sit quietly and listen to the details of his life.” John Hockenberry

    The subject of my paper is about rhetoricity of the severely mentally ill and mentally retarded. This paper is to contemplate these questions about nowadays rhetoric which deems speech matters most in rhetorical world: How can people who have psychiatric and cognitive disabilities interfere with rhetorical appeals and devices?

    Would a revised more diverse understanding of rhetoricity fit more in the lives of the mentally disabled or even improve the lives of the mentally disabled? How does thinking through mental illness affect our thinking of rhetoric?

    First of all, in the term of mental illness or mentally disabled, I mean the psychiatric conditions such as schizophrenia, bipolar, autism spectrum disorder, and varieties substantial mental retardation. The purpose of this paper is focusing on granting rhetoric to the mentally disabled besides the varieties and differences among the huge category of mental disabilities.

    “Granting rhetoric” here means the rhetoric’s received interpretation of emphasis on the individual rhetor who produces speech or writing ,which proves that the existence of selves are located in their minds. As the mentally disabled have their own way of thinking and behaving different from the nondisabled, they can also have different rhetoric.

    In order to interpret and understand their different behaviors,we need an expanded understanding and also a broaden concept of rhetoric to include collaborative and mediated rhetoric including the different rhetoric used by the mentally disabled. Thus, it is most crucial to know how rhetoricity works in the minds of mentally disabled and how to grant rhetoricity to their minds.

    Sometimes a person with mental illness feels with little to no words. They are hiding in the shadow for they are too afraid to be vocal about their illness. They sometimes show detachment or even split personality in extreme scenario. But normal people with no mental disability often require the mentally disabled to express their opinions by words.

    Just as the passage shows above, from John Hockenberry’s memoir Moving Violations, we often require the verbal response from others as some proof to show that the humanity is embodied in the illicit of the words and the use of language. It makes people feel good towards the mentally disabled men, and it is the feeling of condescending actually. People treat mental health differently from physical health. And it is hard to understand how or why this affects us.

    This difference can take many forms, from negative social perceptions to discrimination to downsizing the worth of mentally disabled people. Therefore, this unequal treatment of mental and physical diseases leads to unequal results. Mental disorders are more vulnerable to negative evaluation and stigmatization than any other type of illness.

    Many have to cope not only with the devastating effects of their illness, but also with social exclusion and prejudice. For millennia, society has treated people suffering from autism, schizophrenia and other mental illness like slaves or criminals: they were imprisoned, tortured or killed. During the middle ages, mental illness was thought to be a punishment from god: sufferers were thought to be possessed by demons, burned at the stake, or thrown into prisons and lunatic asylums, chained to walls or beds.

    During the enlightenment, people with mental illness finally threw off the shackles. Institutions were established to help people with mental illness. However, stigma and discrimination reached an unfortunate peak during Nazi Germany, when thousands of mentally ill people were murdered or sterilized

    Within the mental illness itself, it is rhetoric. For example, anorexic behavior is itself a type of figurative language (Marshall, 2005). It represents, in a simpler, more concrete form, the natural human tendency to understand or deal with complex concepts. Anorexia is not just a phenomenon generated by the modern American media praising certain body types. The disease is not a direct result of young women’s desire to ‘get thinner’.

    Instead, it is a metaphorical way of life. For people with anorexia, anorexia is an abstract concept, a sense of control over one’s life situation through concrete actions, and a literal control over one’s food intake. Some anorexics express their anorexia metaphorically through various means of communication. One anorexic noted that eating disorders were ‘as foreign to a native Russian as Chinese.

    Whenever the verb ‘to eat’ appears, use ‘live’ instead, and ‘live’ instead of ‘food’ ‘(Hooper 1). Many anorexics also turn to artistic expression to cope with their overwhelming emotions. Not only do these expressions fail to help anorexics express their concerns in a constructive way, they also further distort their self-perception and others’ understanding of the disorder. In art depicting the experiences of anorexics, the authors seek to downplay the physical lethality of anorexia.

    Micah Twaddle’s poem “Voices”, published in the Chicken Soup of Teen Soul III, brings viewers into the minds of anorexics: ‘the voice… That is, / if she ate, she would gain weight, / and she would be too fat to be loved ‘(251). In this case, anorexia as an expression of the inner voice reinforces the notion that everything is in the human mind. As Sontag says, ‘victims imply innocence.’ And innocence, by the ruthless logic that governs all relevant terms, implies guilt ‘(99).

    In this case, the poem may portray anorexia as a condition in which the patient is ‘guilty’ of inducing or even imagining it. Many anorexics, mainly young women, set up online support groups to encourage each other to maintain their disorder. Because obsession is the norm in these communities, online readers and writers quickly get used to speaking metaphorically. The most common type of metaphor in these groups turns the anorexic personality into a completely separate self.

    Users also use aliases as a metaphor for their relationship to the ‘person’. In the online LiveJournal community anorexic paradise, members’ usernames include notperfectyet_, mystarana, strongana and thinocence. ‘Many anorexics see their disorder as a key aspect of their identity. Their usernames became alter egos, and the blog made anorexia a separate character.

    Anorexic Paradise’s Community information page features pictures of Mary-Kate Olsen and several other slim models and celebrities who are apparently the main source of thinness. ‘If you don’t have an eating disorder, LEAVE,’ warns the community’s founder.

    This community is built to try and eliminate ‘want to be’ and support each other perfectly. Don’t only think thin, BE thin! Under this warning, the creator asks members to list their current, highest, and lowest weights. Realizing that they have a labeled disorder, members create an exclusive society, and anorexia provides a metaphor for the lives of each member. Some journal articles personify anorexia to express a love-hate relationship with the disease.

    In a LiveJournal article, a writer using the username ‘this_thin’ wrote a ‘prayer for Anna,’ pleading: ‘in your cruelty, give me the wisdom to know you, give me the ability to mask your perception, and give me the ability to appreciate your innocence.’ “In your cruelty, the ideal to pursue perfection which I have, the trick to disguise you which I possess, the strength to endure the pain of hunger which I enjoy, the vulnerability to accept you which I accept” For her, anorexia plays a quasi-religious role.

    She specifically mentions innocence and vulnerability, which suggests that, to some extent, she recognizes the dangers of anorexia. Nevertheless, “This thin” remains loyal to anorexia, believing that if she is loyal enough, she will be satisfied. Just as pious people turn to their gods for relief when life’s obstacles seem insurmountable, many young women use anorexia as a psychological and spiritual defense. Anorexics compare ‘perfection’ to ‘hunger’ and by metaphorizing perfection with starvation, anorexic people see their restricted eating patterns as a form of redemption.

    Within the mental illness, body-language become more advanced than speech too. The rhetoric of the speech contains ethos, pathos, logos now are fully showed by the actions of the mentally disabled. They are more prone to show their emotions through actions rather than words. There is reluctance in expressing their inner thoughts, but their minds develop another coping strategy to face the reality which is the body rhetoric.

    It is not saying that normal people don’t have body rhetoric, we all have it. But it is them who wear it as armor. When thinking about body rhetoric, we must first acknowledge that the body can act as a site of rhetoric and social change. And there are four types of body rhetoric: Embodied Argumentation, how our body makes argument; Rhetorical style, overall look and feel of our communicative gestures; Vibe/bodily emanation, the energy our body radiates during the performance and Street Theater which means political protest.

    For example, people with autism are likely to repeat the same action all day long and engage in aimless and repetitive activities (opening/closing doors, lining up items, flushing, etc.) Sometimes you can see a child stands in the yard, throwing leaves, sand, or dust into the air over and over again or a child finishes the same puzzle over and over again in the same way or a child stacks objects in the same pattern or a child arranged the toys in order, again and again, with no apparent meaning for the order chosen.

    These actions are actually self- protection from the world. Their minds are wondering off somewhere to self-healing and to become something else(far away from the prejudice and judgement). Their bodies are an embodiment of their protests and a rebellious gesture to fight against the injustice towards mental illness.

    This is some poetic way to put it like that, but in reality, autism people may just be thinking on their own because their minds functioning differently than us. Their irritating gestures with different facial expression might be linked to the inner state within the mentally disabled people. But either way, their body language is a note to us that their feelings are no less than us. We just have to listen, and listen could be our connection to them in a subtle way to have spiritual conversations rather than only persuasive acts only in motion.

    In redefining rhetoric, it is worth recalling Aristotle’s opening definition in the art of rhetoric. George Kennedy annotated Aristotle’s famous definition by commenting on the word ‘dynamis.’ The reality produced by rhetorical potential is not the written or spoken word of speech, nor even the art of persuasion, but the art of ‘observing’ how persuasion works.

    While accepting the historical tradition of emphasizing artistic rhetoric followed by intelligent and persuasive writing, it also suggests that speech does not necessarily exist in speech, text, or any particular communication technology, nor does it depend on them. The potential of rhetoric lies in the rhetorical situation. From George Kennedy’s “ A Hoot in the dark”, he points out that rhetoric probably should not be equated with communication, which seems to have different levels of rhetoric.

    Rhetoric has different meanings in different cultures. Rhetoric is not a logical entity, but a transfer of energy at different levels. This energy level can to some extent be measured by experimenters. Rhetorical energy exists not only in language, but also in movements, expressions, and gestures.


    1. Retrieved from Cheng, S. (2016, 11 1).
    2. New evidence changes the story of why Vincent van gogh cut off his ear. Retrieved from Goo Hara’s manager Shares she has recently been battling depression. (2019, 5 26).
    3. Retrieved from Kang, H. (2019, 10 16).
    4. How a K-pop sta’s death reveals the truth about our society. Retrieved from Lewiecki-Wilson, C. (2003).
    5. Rethinking rhetoric through mental disabilities. Rhetoric Review, 22(2), 156-167. Marshall, A. (2005).
    6. Rhetoric of Anorexia: Eating as a Metaphor for Living. Young Scholars In Writing, 3, 76-81. Pryal, K. R. (2011).
    7. The Creativity Mystique and the Rhetoric of Mood Disorders . Disability Studies Quarterly. Rössler, W. (2016).
    8. The stigma of mental disorders. EMBO reports, 17(9), 1250-1253. Vincent Van Gogh’s life and work. (n.d.). Retrieved from

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