All those fuckers…all of them with their clicking pens and quiet judgment, all of them did not get it. There was something in the sky. This was the best moment of Bob’s life so far. This was when he realized that, no matter what, there was something bigger than all of this. There was an energy ray in the heavens and it had elected to come down and touch him.
Author Sandra Allen didn’t know her uncle Bob very well, but what she knew hinted at the mysterious and misunderstood. Her mother’s brother was referred to simply as “crazy,” and lived like a hermit in an isolated part of California.
Learning that Sandra is enrolled in a writing program, Bob calls and tells her he’s done some life writing, then thanks her profusely. Unsure why, she figures it out when his manuscript unexpectedly arrives in the mail.
I have often looked back and tried to remember what I thought the word ‘schizophrenia’ meant before Bob sent his manuscript to me. I’ve asked myself what images flashed through my mind when I first read the phrase he typed on his manuscript’s cover page: psychotic paranoid schizophrenic.
At first, she’s disoriented by the all-caps typing, myriad misspellings, and the lingering reek of cigarette smoke; after slogging through some of its pages, she’s repelled by the blunt language and storytelling, including racist and culturally insensitive expressions and anecdotes. She avoids thinking about it for awhile, likewise avoiding Bob’s questions about whether she’s read it.
Eventually curiosity gets the best of her, and she picks through it, agreeing with Bob that his story deserves telling. Growing up in Berkeley in the turbulent 1960s and ’70s, Bob’s emerging mental troubles would disastrously coincide with the era’s proliferating drug use, ending with several stays in mental hospitals and numerous frightening, confusing, and at times exhilarating events. He was diagnosed as paranoid schizophrenic, and certainly his recreational drug use didn’t help the problem. It seems possible he did drugs to relieve his symptoms.
The fact that Allen undertook this project, fulfilling her uncle’s wish to get his story “out there,” and I’m sure to be better understood by a society that he’d always occupied the fringes of, is highly admirable.
Allen also researched and interviewed mental health professionals who offered opinions on treatment and its evolution across decades, and gathered statistics and facts to hammer home the important, often ignored points of this frequently misunderstood illness. Again, admirable and necessary. These chapters on the science behind schizophrenia and social ramifications of mental illness in the U.S. alternate with those of Bob’s rambling, sprawling writings and Sandra’s fact-checking and questioning missions within the family.
Many feel that those seeking to help individuals perceived to be abnormal or experiencing mental or emotional distress shouldn’t seek to diagnose them, to call some of their behaviors or experiences ‘symptoms’ and try to fit them into one box or another. Rather, those seeking to provide mental health care should work to better understand the various contexts in which people actually live – for example, the deleterious effects of poverty, racism, sexism, bullying, and other traumas.
That’s helpful, but underdeveloped, and the lack of depth runs throughout, in various ways. Even in interviews with family members who explain what they remember about episodes in Bob’s life, there’s a lack of emotions or of reflective commentary. Allen shies from expressing her feelings, besides to say she felt embarrassed at not always returning Bob’s calls or speaking directly enough with him about what she intended to do with his writings. She veers away from confronting some emotions head on, and that left the story lacking.
And it feels somewhat exploitative to use his writings like this, although of course he expressly asked her to, without spending more time actually talking with him. That’s what bothered me the most. She used them while maintaining distance.
As for Bob’s writing, I can’t imagine the massive task she faced in deciphering his misspellings and harried, incoherent stories. At times much of the narrative was nearly incoherent even in its cleaned-up form. That was another reason why I couldn’t like this book, despite how important I believe any transparent, factual exploration of mental illness is. I was just so confused reading it.
Lest I sound too critical, I do believe it’s a story that needed told, that it’s painful for everyone connected to it, and that we need much more transparency in terms of mental health issues and treatment in the US. The stigma surrounding these is ludicrous and comically outdated. I just didn’t find the jumbled format and emotional remove of the family members as helpful in bridging that divide. I felt oppressively sad without any redeeming hopefulness by the end, and often I wasn’t even sure exactly what I’d read or if I’d understood it.
But it does contain some beautiful, bittersweet moments, like when Bob’s mother, Marilyn, shows Sandra a Dear Abby newspaper clipping she’s saved for years, written by another mother with a schizophrenic son.
“No one should have to endure what schizophrenia does to the mind, but worse is what society does to its sufferers,” she had written. “If my son had been stricken with cancer, he would have received sympathy. Because he suffered instead from a mental illness that sometimes made him do weird things, he was treated as less than an animal by some people. Professionals in the judicial system called him a ‘sorry piece of human flesh.'” This woman wrote that her son had often expressed a wish to fall asleep and never wake up, and that he had died in his sleep some years before.
Marilyn had underlined a part farther down in which the woman implored Abby to tell her readers to learn about mental illnesses, which affect one in four American families. “Look beyond the illness to the inner person. They need friends.”
Marilyn patted this scrap of paper into my palm and looked me in the eyes.
It’s a moment that comes to me often when I think about why it’s so hard for some people to hear or say the word “schizophrenia.”
And it’s why we need every piece of writing or project that speaks out about this painful, misunderstood topic. Unfortunately, this usually felt more like perpetuating the same behavior that this meaningful moment speaks out against – evidenced by her obvious discomfort in visiting or talking with her uncle. It’s also hard to ignore that he isn’t credited as a co-author despite how much of his writing makes up this actual book.
A chaotic look at improperly treated mental illness, its toll on one man’s life, and how that life is perceived through his family’s eyes.
A Kind of Mirraculas Paradise:
A True Story About Schizophrenia
by Sandra Allen
published January 23, 2018 by Scribner
I received an advance copy courtesy of the publisher for review.