Suspending the Blog

To the followers of this blog:

Monday Evening — I am writing this just moments after I read the news that the president has fired the acting Attorney General, Sally Q. Yates, in the aftermath of her announcement that she would not defend his executive order to ban immigrants from seven predominantly Muslim countries. The consequences of this radical decision are playing out as I write these words.

https://www.nytimes.com/2017/01/30/us/politics/trump-immigration-ban-memo.html?hp&action=click&pgtype=Homepage&clickSource=story-heading&module=a-lede-package-region&region=top-news&WT.nav=top-news&_r=0

We are caught up in a severe and onrushing national crisis. This fact has become clear to me, as it has to millions of our fellow citizens. The crisis threatens our constitution; our historic system of governance with its checks, balances, and principles of justice; our economic stability along with that of all nations; our earned posture as a moral beacon to the world; and even our assumptions of insulation from abrupt and fissioning warfare, which most of us have grown accustomed to taking for granted.

The crisis carries enormous implications for the welfare of the mentally ill, which is the subject of this blog. Yet the velocity of civil destabilization has subsumed these implications into larger questions of national continuity, public safety, and cohesion in our communities.

I believe it is a moral imperative for each of us to turn our attention and our energies to the preservation of all that we hold sacred in the nation.

As the days roll on, it might be possible to discern and address critical challenges in the preservation of mental health-care under this administration. Conversely, it might be necessary for all Americans to place their particularized interests and agenda on hold, at least temporarily, and concentrate on monitoring (and trying to intervene in) an unprecedented threat, from within, to the very concept of “America.”

I hope and expect that soon, I will be able to join the leading activists and chroniclers of mental-health issues in framing these in the context of federal policy. As of the moment, there seems to be no coherent national policy–on this issue or any other. We are all conscripted into a mission we did not choose, a mission of witness and resistance.

Until–God and the fates willing–we consummate this reluctant mission in reclamation and redemption, this blog is suspended.

KEVIN PERFORMANCE VIDEO

Here is Kevin in an ensemble performance of “A Day in the Life of a Fool,” a part of a spring concert by Interlochen string musicians under the direction of John Wunsch. Kevin will take his chair immediately to the right of Mr. Wunsch, amidst a semicircle of some of the most talented guitarists and harpists in the country. He performs at least two guitar solos in this number (my recollection is hazy; another guitarist may have one solo, but Kevin’s unique buttery sound is ingrained in my memory). The last one shows him at full throttle!

This piece is beautifully arranged, probably by Mr. Wunsch. It begins sedately, but builds in complexity and intensity, and Kevin’s solos showcase his incredible finger speed. At the end, as the musicians stand to take their bows, Kev flashes his trademark lopsided grin, which I write about in NO ONE CARES ABOUT CRAZY PEOPLE.

So: please turn off all cell phones. No flash photography. Enjoy!

Advance Notice

From Booklist Online

Pulitzer Prize–winning writer Powers shares his family’s struggles as two sons suffer from schizophrenia. Youngest son Kevin ends up committing suicide by hanging himself in the basement just before turning 21. Older son Dean remains under treatment for the disease. So much pain and loss, helplessness and frustration. Powers recalls the boys’ darkening moods, increasing opaqueness, and psychotic episodes. He points out a major obstacle to survival is anosognosia—a lack of insight into one’s condition, a faulty belief that nothing’s wrong with your mind. His very emotional memoir also covers some of the history, legislation, pharmacology, and science of schizophrenia. He reminds us how apathetic and cruel society can be when it comes to mental illness. Consider the colloquial nomenclature: loonies, lunatics, nutcases, psychos, wackos. He reviews the tsunami of miscalculations and mistakes in the 1960s that launched mental-health care on a terrible trajectory: the denouncing of psychiatry, dosing patients with new drugs to make them more docile, and releasing hundreds of thousands of mentally ill individuals from psychiatric hospitals and community-health centers. Presently, prisons are America’s biggest mental-health facilities. Powers grieves, “Too many of the mentally ill in our country live under conditions of atrocity.” Shame on us.

— Tony Miksanek

TO MY FRIENDS WHO FOLLOW THIS BLOG

Beginning in a few days, I will be posting, on this blog, some audio and, later, video tracks of my late son Kevin in performance. These will showcase his more mature work–if “mature” is the right word to describe a gifted young musician who, in the fog of schizophrenia, took his life a week before his 21st birthday in 2005. I’ve published a few pieces before this, but they feature Kev mostly as an early adolescent, sometimes in duets with his older brother Dean–who also was struck by schizophrenia, but who is stabilized at age 35.

kevin-powers-guitar
Kevin’s hands

I have mixed feelings about offering up these audios and videos. From a personal standpoint, it is still difficult for my wife Honoree and me to hear Kevin’s music sixteen years after he left us. Until this past weekend, I had not been able to bring myself to look at the videos–recorded mostly at the Interlochen Academy for the Arts, where he spent his prep years–since his death. Last week I finally braced myself, dug the cassettes out of storage, and brought them to a technician in nearby Rutland for transfer to the MP4 format, which enables editing and sending the material to my blog administrator. On Saturday, notified that the transfer was ready for viewing, I returned to the studio. I made myself stand beside the technician and watch the monitor screen as it shifted from blue to footage of the Interlochen jazz ensemble, with a T-shirted Kevin pumping out one of his glorious solos. I held it together. At this writing, Honoree has not viewed the tapes, but she has signaled her determination to do so.

The second reason for my mixed feelings is related to the first. This blog is followed by many parents who have lost children of their own to the awful scourge of schizophrenia. It doesn’t take much imagination to understand that many of these good, bereaved people will experience the pain of recovered memory as they watch. For this, I am genuinely sorry.

Yet my reason for posting these sounds and images of Kevin has nothing to do with indulging my own sorrow, nor of activating anyone else’s. It certainly has nothing to do with promoting Kevin as somehow more deserving of attention than the countless other young victims of brain disorders. Quite the opposite: my goal is to celebrate the tremendous joyful life-force that was Kevin–and, by extension, the equally precious, and unique life-forces within all his brothers and sisters who have been taken or diminished by serious mental illness.

Every parent or other surviving relative of a mental-illness casualty harbors rich memories of a child in the full exuberance of his or her life–a time of hopes and dreams unlimited, until the unthinkable occurred.

Kevin was nothing if not generous and humble–he was “notorious” for giving up his own solo time to fellow musicians who yearned for a little spotlight. He would have held these young people in his big-handed embrace. He would have insisted, correctly, that each one of their lives was as precious and filled with potential as his own. He would have insisted on consecrating his music to all the beautiful young souls who seldom if ever enjoyed the pleasure of a “solo,” yet enriched the earth around them, each in his or her own way.

So, please: if you can, enjoy Kevin’s music in the same celebratory spirit that he played it: the spirit of life, and laughter, and friendship, and of giving up a solo to a friend every now and then.

DEAN ON CAPRI

This is one of my favorite photographs of Dean. I took it during our visit to Italy in 2008, three years after Kevin’s death. Honoree had dreamed of a family visit to Italy for years, and we finally made it–but not in time for our younger son to enjoy the splendors of the country with us. Dean was 27 then, still devastated by the loss of his brother–perhaps more than we realized–but still resilient, even as the “prodromal” phase of his own affliction with schizophrenia was advancing. I made this photo through the window of a cafe beside a harbor on Capri, where Honoree and I were having a light lunch. Dean, who was still capable of joy and discovery, had decided to take his notebook and pen outside, where he positioned himself on the rocks by the water, in the sunshine, and channeled his inspiration into his journal.

Dean was then two years from his own psychotic break, triggered by romantic loss, but really the inevitable result of several years of accumulating stress, including his beloved brother’s suicide. As of today, Dean is still fighting gallantly to regain the equilibrium he maintained on that sunlit vacation. He lives in the warm embrace of our household in Vermont. My account of his saga–described in NO ONE CARES ABOUT CRAZY PEOPLE–is a testament to all the unknown battles being waged by victims of this horrible scourge who still can muster the mental resources, and the deep wells of character, to carry on their daily struggle for a meaningful life.

I admire Dean and his late brother more than anyone I have ever known or known about–including heroes of politics, war, literature, or any other field of endeavor. I know that many thousands of young men and women struggle as ardently as my sons, in anonymity, away from public recognition and perhaps scorned and feared by the strangers who encounter them. My book, besides being a journey of inquiry into the long history of mental illness, is meant to be an affirmation of Dean’s and Kevin and their brave brothers and sisters

I never glanced into the journal entries that Dean created in the exhilaration of that sunlit day on Capri. He didn’t volunteer to show us what he’d written, and Honoree and I respected his boundaries, and did not ask.

But I know that the words Dean set down are irradiated with his loving ardency and eloquence. Maybe someday I will look.

Tela

A day or so ago I was rummaging through some old photo files, and up popped Tela.

She was Kevin’s cat: a small, white, delicate creature whom he named after a song by Phish, the Vermont band whom he worshipped. Kevin and Tela had a special bond, but everyone in the family loved her. I could count on her padding into my upstairs study at night when I was reading. She’d jump weightlessly onto my lap, and I would scratch her ears, which she loved.

Tela4But Kev was her main man. The two of them were reflections of one another in their gentleness and charm. After Kevin died, we found a home for her. We hear that she is doing very well.

Tela2

 

FLORIDA ON MY MIND

The news started coming out of Ft. Lauderdale around mid-afternoon on Friday, as I was preparing a different blog entirely:

I imagine that all of us who happened to see the first news-breaks instantly pared the possibilities to two: Terrorist shooter. Or psychotic shooter. Those of us who weren’t tied up in actual useful work stopped what we were doing and started clicking around the news sites on the Internet. At least five dead, several more wounded. The shooting occurred in the airport baggage claim area.

The airport baggage claim area?!

The updates trickled in. We learned that the shooter had been “taken into custody.” (A rare outcome: normally—as it were—the shooter “ends the spree by taking his own life,” or else is “brought down by a policeman’s bullet.” These industrialized phrases have become as familiar to us as our own names.) Yet in this case, a twist: not so much “taken into custody” as gone limp on the terminal floor, face down, waiting to be hauled upright and carted away.

Probably not a terrorist, then. Yet we waited for further facts and factoids to appear and be confirmed, as we have been trained to do. As many of have been trained to do. Some of us.

Waited, until we decided it was safe to—what?

On the TV screen behind the computer, the factoids crept in their steady pace: “’He just started shooting people.’” “Suspect clad in Star Wars T-shirt.” “Mass chaos.” The regulation sheriff, his regulation civilized dark necktie knotted in place, stepped to the regulation microphone and spoke of “this cowardly, heinous act.”

 

Somewhat later we learned that “officials” had identified the “suspect” as “26-year-old Esteban Santiago.” And that 26-year-old Esteban Santiago was a “troubled Army veteran.” He had served a tour in Iraq.

Another update revealed to us that after 26-year-old Esteban Santiago’s flight had landed at Ft. Lauderdale, he had simply withdrawn his weapon, a semiautomatic handgun, from his claimed luggage begun killing and maiming people standing near him. (He had discreetly withdrawn the weapon in the men’s restroom.) We learned—or we were reminded, in the case of those of us who had managed to squeeze it out of our memories for the sake of restful nights—the explanation for the baggage claim area as the site of the shootings: under current aviation security rules, passengers may carry loaded guns in their luggage as long as they declare the fact to “authorities.”

Security” rules!

We learned that 26-year-old Esteban Santiago had dutifully made that declaration, so there should have been no problem.

We did not learn that an armed Good Guy With a Gun stepped up to shoot this Bad Guy With a Gun. Perhaps this did not happen.

We learned that in states that boast “open-carry” and “concealed-carry” permission laws, states such as Florida, people may enter “unsecured” sections of airports with their open or concealed “carries,” fully equipped to draw and shoot.

At about the same time, we learned—this time from a “senior law enforcement official” quoted in the New York Times—that 26-year-old Esteban Santiago had entered an FBI office in Anchorage, Alaska several weeks ago and made “disturbing remarks” that prompted “officials” to “urge him to seek mental health care. One “official” disclosed that “Mr. Santiago, appearing ‘agitated and incoherent,’ said “that his mind was being controlled by a U.S. intelligence agency,”

A brother of the shooter reported that he had hallucinated, and had reported hearing voices. The brother remarked that Santiago had been discharged from the National Guard after being demoted for “unsatisfactory service” and had asked for psychological help, “but received little assistance.” The brother asked, “How is it possible that the federal government knows, they hospitalize him for four days, and then give him his weapon back?”

No one seemed to have an answer.

The updates carried on into the evening; the facts and the factoids crept along, and the “officials” popped up and disgorged their industrialized sound-bites, and disappeared. Some of the “officials” were “senior.” All of them dazzled with their acute inductive reasoning. An FBI agent disclosed to the press, “Indications are that he came here to carry out this horrific attack.”

This same expert continued, presumably with a straight face: “We have not identified any triggers that would have caused this attack.”  

Our topmost elected “officials” and officials-manque were on the case. Florida governor Rick Scott hurried to Ft. Lauderdale—to the executive airport—where he wondered how this thing could have happened in such a state as his Florida. The governor sternly warned that “the citizens of Florida will not tolerate senseless acts of evil.” Someone asked the governor whether this meant perhaps that the citizens would demand, and the government would provide, a rollback on the law permitting guns in airports.

The question affronted Scott’s sensibilities. How inappropriate! How insensitive to sully this moment of grieving with politics!

The New York Times later reported: “The shooting came as Florida lawmakers were preparing to consider legislation that would relax [emphasis mine] prohibitions on firearms. State laws allow for the purchase of rifles, handguns and shotguns without a permit, though a license is required to carry a concealed weapon in the state.”

The governor, perhaps seeking to further quell anxiety, reported that he had been in close touch with custodians of higher authority:

“I have reached out to President-elect Trump, and spoken to him and to Vice President-elect (Mike) Pence multiple times to keep them informed, and they told me whatever resources that we need from the federal government, they would do everything in their power to make that happen.”  

By Saturday afternoon (as I write this) the nonsense had curdled, as it always does by the second or third day of such stories. Curdled into stale righteous partisan argument over where to place “the blame”: Terrorism? Psychosis? Guns? Traumatized veterans?

All potential for redemptive action had dissipated, once again. The usual “official” posturing and the nonspeak of the usual “authorities” laid bare, as they always do, a few precious revelations of unintended truth. We ache to know “the truth” of what touched off the Ft. Lauderdale airport shooting, as we ache for the truth every time something like this happens. Terrorism? Psychosis? Our citizen arsenal of three hundred million guns? Which of these stands out as the first cause, the prime mover, of the ongoing nightmare that rides on our sleep?

I have come to believe that even to ask this question is tantamount to burying the answer. Each component in this triad has its body of impassioned accusers, and each body of accusers tends to dismiss the other two as trivial or false.

I believe that these “discrete” elements of our national humanitarian crisis are not discrete at all; they are mutually reinforcing elements of a diseased whole, and they cry out to be addressed—healed—holistically. And with reason, rather than partisan defiance.

No one need take me aside and explain quietly what an absurd pipe-dream this sounds like; what a useless appeal to “kumbya” mush. But I don’t intend altruism here; I intend to promote survival, as individuals and as a society.

We can begin collectively to address terrorism, untreated mental illness, and the obscene availability of demonic firearms.

Or we can reconcile ourselves to a baleful updating of John Donne’s holistic call: “Never send to know for whom the ‘official’ pretends to mourn. He pretends to mourn for thee.”

Starred Review for NO ONE CARES ABOUT CRAZY PEOPLE

From Kirkus Reviews

Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Powers (Mark Twain: A Life, 2005, etc.) presents two searing sagas: an indictment of mental health care in the United States and the story of his two schizophrenic sons. Having previously published notable books in the realms of biography, media criticism, small-town ethnography, investigative journalism, and memoir, the author once again demonstrates his versatility. The unforgettable title of his latest book derives from a callous comment made by a politician in 2010. As Powers demonstrates through in-depth reporting and his own personal experience, even when those in positions of authority sincerely believe in the importance of helping those who are mentally ill, meaningful care tends to receive short shrift at budget time. The author never wanted to write a book about mental health because of the nightmares that would arise discussing highly personal matters. However, he decided that the urgency for improved mental health policy and funding in this country compelled him to forge ahead with a manuscript. By the time of his decision, nearly a decade had passed since his younger son, Kevin, had hanged himself in the basement of the family home a week prior to his 21st birthday. Then, as Powers and his wife continued in the grief and healing process, their only remaining child, Dean, began to show signs of schizophrenia. A psychotic break on a Christmas morning melted away the author’s resolve to refrain from writing this book—and readers are the beneficiaries. Powers intends for the book to comfort families dealing with severe mental illness, to shock general readers with examples of atrocities befalling the mentally ill, to show that “crazy people” are rarely dangerous to anybody but themselves, and to push for significant reform. “I hope you do not ‘enjoy’ this book,” he writes in the preface. “I hope you are wounded by it; wounded as I have been writing it. Wounded to act, to intervene.” This hybrid narrative, enhanced by the author’s considerable skills as a literary stylist, succeeds on every level.