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Name: Rowanne Conway

PhD: English

Thesis Title: The Borderline State: A Phenomenology of Borderline Personality Disorder and its Literary Depiction in America


Thesis Description:

My thesis is the first substantial interpretation of the depiction of Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) in contemporary American culture. It will feature an in depth analysis of BPD in American fiction and memoir, as well as an overview of its representations in other popular media. The project will begin with the history of the identification of borderline cases, move into its medicalization in 1980 and onto the influx of BPD cases since 1995, my period of focus. 

Fiction writers to be studied may include but are not limited to Donna Tartt, Bret Easton Ellis, Jennifer Egan, Jonathan Franzen, Matthew Quick, Mark Z. Danielewski, Don DeLillo and Stephen Chbosky.

Memoirists to be studied may include but are not limited to Marya Hornbacher, Susana Kaysen, Elizabeth Wurtzel, Jerold J. Kreisman, Elyn R. Saks, Rachel Reiland, Stacy Pershall and Merri Lisa Johnson.

In addition, first-person accounts of borderlines will be collected with permission from online media. The dichotomy between medicalized and first-person description of BPD will become apparent, as will the similarities between phenomenological philosophy and the first-hand experience of BPD. This thesis will take a phenomenological approach with the belief that such an ontological description of BPD has not yet been made. I will defend the necessity of literary and cultural studies in doing so.

In a wider frame, my thesis will discuss the history of psychiatry post the anti-psychiatry movement of the 1960s, the moral controversy surrounding Class B personality disorders, including BPD, and the symptomization of personality traits.

Primary theorists to be worked with include those behind the Institute of Phenomenological Studies (IPS), including R. D. Laing, the foundational existential phenomenologists, including Heidegger, Sartre and de Beauvoir, contemporary mental illness theorists and commentators, including Richard Moskovitz, and mental health advocates. From this I hope to develop a new, experimental form of literary analysis based in current methods of phenomenological psychiatry. 

Finally, my thesis will make conclusions about the connections between BPD and contemporary American society and question established ways of interpreting borderline traits and what it means to have a 'disordered' personality. 


Supervisors and Institution(s): 

Dr. Rex Ferguson, University of Birmingham.

Professor Martin Haliwell, University of Leicester.


Scholarly / Public Engagement Activities:

year: 2017/2018

  • Running MHL-1, a seminar series concerned with mental health in literature at the University of Birmingham.
  • Running the EDACS fortnightly postgraduate seminar group at the University of Birmingham.

year: 2016/2017

  • Staff-student representative for PGT students within the English department at the University of Birmingham.
  • Co-ran the EDACS fortnightly postgraduate seminar group at the University of Birmingham.
  • Presented the paper "Being-in-the-world in the Mountains" at the Long Nineteenth Century Conference at the University of Birmingham.
  • Attended the British Society for Literature and Science’s 11th Annual Conference at the University of Birmingham.
  • Attended the Life of Breath's conference Phenomenology, Anxiety and Breath at the University of Bristol.

year: 2015/2016

  • Attended the Centre for Cultural Modernity’s Local Modernisms Conference at the University of Birmingham.


Other Research Interests:

  • Confessional memoir and life writing.
  • The history of psychiatry.
  • Work of R. D. Laing.
  • Existential phenomenology.
  • Depiction of mental illness in film.
  • Magical thinking.
  • Embodiment in literature.
  • Eating disorders in literature.
  • Digital culture and mental health.
  • Theories of mental illness and psychosis. 
  • Heideggerian boredom.



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