Review: No One Cares About Crazy People
No One Cares about Crazy People: The Chaos and Heartbreak of Mental Health in Americaby Ron Powers (Hachette, $28 hardcover, 384p., 9780316341172, March 21, 2017)
From Shelf Awareness
In the opening line of No One Cares about Crazy People: The Chaos and Heartbreak of Mental Health in America, Ron Powers, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, author and co-author of nonfiction such as Mark Twain: A Life and Flags of Our Fathers, writes: “This is the book I promised myself I would never write.” It is a hybrid, a nontraditional history of mental health care fused to an incredibly personal story about his two sons’ struggles with schizophrenia. For his son Kevin, that struggle ended in suicide, and the heartbreak of that experience (among others) permeates every impersonal date and statistic in the book with sorrow and rage.
Powers doesn’t attempt an encyclopedic history of mental illness and care in the United States, instead focusing on specific factors–trends, innovations, individuals, etc.–that played a role in creating a status quo wherein “too many of the mentally ill in our country live under conditions of atrocity.” Powers finds one of his chief culprits in deinstitutionalization, a program whose name “carried the lilting harmony of silverware spilling from a cleanup tray.” The well-intentioned experiment was designed to move prisoners from “the malingering scourge of decrepit mental asylums” to “community centers for treatment of the mentally ill.” Instead, budget cuts left hundreds of thousands of patients stranded and desperate, fueling the rise of homelessness as well as mass incarceration.
Clueless politicians are hardly the only ones to blame for the current crisis, however. Powers’s story is one of repeated moral failings, from the doctors performing transorbital lobotomies to the greed-fueled depredations of Big Pharma–“to open the dossier on the behavior of American and European pharmaceutical giants over the past quarter-century is to confront a fortified casino of riches and debauchery.” The title of the book is a quote from leaked government e-mails, repurposed into a damning allegation.
For the families of the mentally ill, of course, caring about “crazy people” is a necessity. In roughly alternating chapters, Powers allows us to watch his sons grow up, dealing with the challenges of incipient schizophrenia as well as tragic events that shape their young minds. All the while, Powers movingly relates the joys of raising creatively gifted children. Kevin proves to be something of a musical savant, while his older brother, Dean, shows talents for music and writing. A typically sweet anecdote recalls Kevin’s introduction to music as a young child serendipitously brought up on stage at a concert: “His poker face held, but inside him, volcanoes were erupting and winds were blowing one life out and a new one in.”
Unfortunately, the reader is also witness to schizophrenia sweeping through the loving family as Kevin and Dean experience hallucinations, paranoia and psychotic breaks. The boys’ interactions with the mental health care system give Powers a first-hand look into its failings, and in turn he shows the reader the devastating human consequences of society’s indifference toward the mentally ill. —Hank Stephenson, bookseller, Flyleaf Books
Shelf Talker: No One Cares About Crazy People pairs a history of mental health care with the deeply personal story of the author’s two sons and their struggles with schizophrenia.