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A conversation with bestselling author Marya Hornbacher

Marya is the 11th Annual Prechter Lecture keynote speaker.

Please tell us a little bit about the books you’ve authored.

I’ve been lucky enough to have the opportunity to write in a diverse range of genres and on a diverse range of subjects, though many of my books return to questions about mental health, culture, and the relationship between the two. I’ve written two memoirs, one on eating disorders and on bipolar disorder, as well as a book that addresses treatment of the co-occuring disorders of mental illness and addiction. The books that are closest to my heart, actually, are a novel, The Center of Winter, which is about a young family rebuilding itself after a father’s suicide, and a book about humanist ethics and the Twelve Step programs, called Waiting: A Nonbeliever’s Higher Power.

What motivates you to write?

At a very fundamental level, I love to work with language, with story, and with the ways the written word allows us to connect with one another; like painters who really love paint, I love the materials I get to work with every day. At a more conceptual level, I find myself constantly fascinated by the stories people tell themselves, the way we make sense of our world, the beliefs we hold, and the lengths to which people will go to survive. The stories I write — both fiction and nonfiction — have that in common: they look at what it takes for us, as humans, to survive, and even more, to find meaning and purpose in our lives.

How do you think stigma and society’s view of mental illness has changed since your youth?

I think that there’s been a modicum of change in the popular perception of mental illness. Certainly now people who have access to care are more likely to be diagnosed, and helped, more quickly. But we continue to battle the same egregious care gap — people who need care most are still least likely to receive care; the care available is often limited and not always skilled; professionals do not have the resources they need; and the community of people who live with mental health disorders continues to remain on the margins of society, removed from positions of social or political influence. I feel that it’s time to stop worrying about stigma — essentially, worrying about what “people” think of “us” — and start putting our efforts toward creating a political shift that would make care available, and creating a shift in the healthcare industry that would improve care. I do not feel the campaigns to end stigma are negative in any way; I simply want to know what the end goal of those campaigns will be, and what practical impact lower stigma might have in our day to day lives.

What do you do in your free time?

I don’t have much free time, but I treasure it when I do. I live quite a ways from an urban center, so I’m able to do a lot of hiking. I love cooking for friends. I read voraciously. And I travel a good deal.