The Next Chapter

Will Ferguson on why treating mental illness is a lesson in empathy

The Scotiabank Giller Prize-winning author of 419 examines attitudes towards mental health in his novel, The Shoe on the Roof.
Will Ferguson's latest novel is The Shoe on the Roof. (Genki Alex Ferguson/Simon & Schuster Canada)

Will Ferguson's novel The Shoe on the Roof has science and spirituality facing off in a daring psychological experiment. Thomas, the novel's protagonist, insists on having three men — who each believe they are the second coming of Jesus Christ — confront their delusional identities through a scientific study that places them in direct contact with each other. Yet, he has to reassess his own composure when his father begins to meddle with the tests.

This interview originally aired on Nov. 27, 2017.

Origin story

"The Shoe and the Roof  has a history that started when my mom, a psychiatric nurse, told me about an experiment that happened in the U.S. where they brought together three mental patients, each of whom believed they were Jesus. The idea was they would confront them with their doppelgängers. They would shake them free of their delusion."

Finding empathy

"So much of dealing with mental illness is a lesson in empathy. Mental health comes down to anguish and if someone's in anguish, you want to help. But the fact that someone is eccentric or different, that's not reason to intervene in their life. And I think a lot of what we call mental illness is really just a way of defining what is normal."

A gap in science

"We still don't know how brain causes mind — how mind causes identity over time. We don't know how something as neurological as chemical reactions in your nerves can create pain or how memories are formed. The human brain really is the last frontier. I found it fascinating and I liked the fact that if you push science far enough it becomes faith. Thomas's own experiment confronts him with his own faith in science."

Will Ferguson's comments have been edited and condensed.