Words on Bathroom Walls

A Review

by Alvin G. Burstein

When I moved to the University of Tennessee, Knoxville to direct the graduate program in  clinical psychology, my wife, who had graduated from that program, was eager for me to meet William S. Verplanck. When she began her studies there, he was the department head; during  his tenure, the department won national attention for its quality. Bill was one of the giants of psychology, individuals who pre-dated the field’s splitting into myriad, siloed specialties: cognition, motivation, social, clinical, counseling, organizational et al. From Bill’s point of view, there was one psychology. It was based, not on contrived experiments, but on careful, systematic observation of the natural behavior of living things, and scrupulously accurate description of the observed regularities. Nothing escaped his interest and his careful
attention. At one point, he sent graduate students to area rest rooms to note what was inscribed on their walls—and published a paper on “latrinalia.” So how could I resist a film titled Words on Bathroom Walls? Especially when I learned that its protagonist was a teenager said to be struggling with schizophrenia—a focus of my own doctoral studies.

The film is an adaptation of a young adult novel by Julia Walton. Released in the summer of 2020, it earned acclaim for the portrayal of its protagonist, Adam Petrazilli, who struggles to
complete high school and aspires to become a professional chef, while coping with delusions and the side effects of being involved in the clinical trial of some experimental drugs. Those struggles culminate in Adam’s coming to own his condition rather trying to hide it and is intended to help de-stigmatizing the “disease.”

Adam’s delusions include experiences of being persecuted. He hallucinates accusations scribbled on the walls of a bathroom and protectors that seem like split-off personalities. The pharmaceutical side effects include uncontrollable tremors and distortions of his gustatory
sense that play havoc with his culinary ambitions. Happily, he finds an ally in an attractive young fellow student, a young woman who protects him when he is being persecuted, not by products of his illness, but by all too predicable teenage lack of tolerance for difference. Adam fears letting her know of his “disease.” She, on the other hand, tries to conceal her  family’s stigma—their poverty. The book was obviously and successfully targeted toward the young adult market. Its themes of amatory and vocational aspiration rang bells. The movie, too, has won accolades, scoring in the 90s in both critical reviews and audience approval ratings by the Rotten Tomato aggregator service. I thought the acting was well done, the characters engaging, and the device of having Adam relating to the camera/audience in scenes of his therapy  sessions extremely effective. On the other hand, the feel good happy ending seemed on the saccharine side and the commitment to genetic/biological models of schizophrenia appeared

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