A STUNNING REVIEW IN THE WALL STREET JOURNAL!

When Your Sons Are Schizophrenic

 

In “No One Cares About Crazy People,” Ron Powers writes of parental love, bewilderment and rage at the vagaries of biological fate. John Donvan says it is one of the most engrossing accounts of raising a family he’s ever read.

Photo: Getty Images

 

Winning the Pulitzer Prize is one kind of writer’s dream. Nearly a year on the New York Times best-seller list is another. A third: when the best seller becomes a movie with a big-name director. Ron Powers is among the few to hit this particular trifecta. The onetime newspaperman won the Pulitzer for TV criticism in 1973, and “Flags of Our Fathers,” the immensely popular Iwo Jima history he co-wrote, arrived as a film in 2006, directed by Clint Eastwood. Mr. Powers’s newest book is a memoir, covering many of the years during which he scored these wins. A victory lap, however, this book is not. The story he relates—with searing humility and deep respect—concerns his two sons and the mental illness that flowered within them. “No One Cares About Crazy People” is a chronicle of deepening devastation recorded by a father able to do little in response to his boys’ suffering other than to witness and to love.

Mr. Powers’s memoir is the culmination of both those processes, and is motivated by his insistence on making us care—not just about his two boys, Dean and Kevin, but about all individuals and families wrestling with schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, acute depression and other forms of mental illness. His title signals his grim recognition that this will be an uphill battle. He pulled the phrase, verbatim, from an incident unrelated to his main story: In 2010, the future governor of Wisconsin, Scott Walker, was still serving as the Milwaukee County executive when a scandal erupted over the abuse of patients at the county mental-health hospital. Subpoenaed emails revealed Mr. Walker and his aides worrying about damage to his political future. In the midst of these exchanges, one aide, who later went to prison, attempted to reassure another member of the team with the blunt political assessment that “no one cares about crazy people.”

Unfortunately she was right—mostly. Few of us care about the challenges of mental illness until the emergency is inside our own homes. Mr. Powers didn’t—until his sons began showing symptoms as teenagers, which is usually when these conditions clearly manifest. But once he was awakened, the world he had entered frustrated and enraged him.

Mr. Powers gives away the climax of his story in the preface: Both his boys, starting at different times, were beset by schizophrenia, and for the younger one, Kevin, the illness proved fatal. At 20, after three years of struggle, he hanged himself, at home in the basement, while his parents slept upstairs. Mr. Powers’s decision to put this stunning revelation on his first page was a gesture of respect to his son’s memory. There would be no storyteller game-playing with Kevin’s life—no ominous foreshadowing, no false hopes for a happy outcome planted along the way. If anything, the author risks scaring away readers uncomfortable with darkness. But those who stay will learn not only what the stakes are but also why they are on this journey.

The stay is worth it, for what unfolds is one of the most engrossing accounts of raising a family I have ever read, one in which Mr. Powers makes universal his themes of parental love, bewilderment and rage at the vagaries of biological fate. At the start, he was just a dad, and his wife, the scientist Honoree Fleming, was just a mom. Neither had any experience in raising children with mental-health challenges. They weren’t experts in schizophrenia. Nor did they need to be, for the first 15 years or so. Mr. Powers’s early chapters conjure his family’s time of pure ordinariness—a quality he cherishes all the more because it was lost. He seems tormented by these recollections—his family’s “before” years—but also blessed by them. And by sharing them he lifts his book into something more elevated than a eulogy for Kevin.

Instead, Kevin lives again in Mr. Powers’s poignant portrait, which he pieces together from excerpts from middle-school essays; quotations from father-son bedtime conversations that sound as fresh as last night; and, most powerfully, Mr. Powers’s descriptions of Kevin’s musical talent. The young man was a true prodigy on the guitar, playing since age 4, and was on his way to making a career as a singer. You can find at least one of his teenage performances on YouTube, and his dad’s right—Kevin Powers was going to be great.

All of which makes his deterioration, with its declared inevitability, more moving and painful to observe. Mr. Powers, in the middle of it all, had no idea where his son’s life was heading or how to keep him from slipping deeper into trouble. Medications were tried. And hospitalizations. But Kevin eventually wanted no part of treatment. The laws limiting involuntary treatment made it difficult to counter Kevin’s preferences—a reality Mr. Powers laments. In a way, Kevin had moved past his parents’ help, which is one of the things that still eats at the father even now.

Another thing is the sorry history of American society’s response to mental illness over the past two centuries. Mr. Powers thumbnails this history in chapters alternating with his sons’ stories and aims his anger at the seemingly natural impulse most of us possess to shun the mentally ill, much as we do the severely developmentally disabled. There is a loneliness to being in either of these categories, a loneliness that also afflicts the families of affected individuals and that is exaggerated by the “solutions” developed, over time, for “dealing with the problem.” Thus Mr. Powers relates the many remedies put forth over the years by usually well-meaning people who, in profound ways, missed the mark. He covers the eugenics movement; the many decades when the severely mentally ill and developmentally disabled were warehoused in so-called asylums; and the scandal that followed the deinstitutionalization movement, when a benevolent assertion of civil rights led to the shuttering of mental-health centers, but without adequate provision for former residents’ continuing need for treatment or even basics like food and shelter. The result: a swelling number of homeless and the transformation of the prison system into a custodial program for people who should be getting help, not doing time.

The real scandal of Mr. Powers’s exposé—and he knows this—is that he is not revealing anything new. These failures have been described many times, by muckrakers and reformers, since the mid-19th-century. But each time the outrage proved short-lived, swallowed up by renewed indifference or perhaps mass amnesia. As the author keeps finding, society’s impulse to “other-ize” the mentally ill is constant: These individuals are politically voiceless and therefore easy to marginalize.

The most uplifting chapter in “No One Cares About Crazy People” is its brief epilogue, focused on the present. Mr. Powers talks about getting visits in his dreams from a guitar-playing Kevin, and he reports that his older son, Dean, who was given the same diagnosis as his brother, is now “doing fine.” Dean has acknowledged that he needs help. He is, says Mr. Powers, “in possession of himself, aware of his limitations, and ready to live on his own in the wider world.”

Still, you can hear the caution in those words. Mr. Powers seems to sense that the progress is provisional; that Dean, now 35, will always be at risk; and that his own fathering remains on trial. Assuming the best, though, Dean will outlive his parents, who are his current chief protectors. That is when he will need the rest of us to be on his side—his and all of those among us who face similar kinds of struggle. That’s why this book was written: to get us to understand, to empathize, to identify. In short, to make its title a lie.

—Mr. Donvan is the co-author of “In A Different Key: The Story of Autism.”

 

A SPLENDID REVIEW FROM THE NEW YORK TIMES!

One Family’s Story of Mental Illness and What Came After

 

The Powers family in 1985, with the author holding his son Dean, and his wife, Honoree, holding Kevin. Credit Powers Family Photograph

NO ONE CARES ABOUT CRAZY PEOPLE
The Chaos and Heartbreak of Mental Health in America
By Ron Powers
360 pp. Hachette Books. $28.

In the opening chapter of his extraordinary and courageous book, the author and critic Ron Powers writes about a recurring dream in which he imagines his sanity as resting atop “a thin and fragile membrane that can easily be ripped open, plunging me into the abyss of madness, where I join the tumbling souls whose membranes have likewise been pierced over the ages.” The “horror and helplessness of the fall,” he goes on, “are intensified by an uncaring world.”

In “No One Cares About Crazy People,” he joins those tumbling souls, two of whom are his beloved schizophrenic sons. He writes with fierce hope and fierce purpose to persuade the world to pay attention.

No doubt if everyone were to read this book, the world would change. But its clumsy title (taken from a stunningly cruel offhand remark by one of Scott Walker’s staffers) is painfully correct. The mentally ill are still viewed with fear or suspicion, as broken, as damaged goods or objects of pity. Still, Powers will surely help to correct that perspective; it’s impossible to read his book without being overcome by empathy for his family, respect for his two beleaguered boys and, by the end, faith in the resilience of the human heart.

Powers, whose books include an acclaimed biography of Mark Twain and, with James Bradley, “Flags of Our Fathers,” is a deft craftsman of sweeping tours of history but also intensely personal human narratives. He brings all his talents to bear in this account of his literature-loving, endearingly goofy, high-achieving family’s descent into hell. Powers, his college-professor wife, Honoree, and their children had a beautiful life in Middlebury, Vt., until their younger son, Kevin, a gifted musician, began to exhibit symptoms of schizophrenia at age 17. Three years later, in 2005, he took his own life. Dean, the Powerses’ elder son, also developed the disease but eventually found some stability and a productive life through vigilant, compassionate care. In the boys’ letters and emails to their parents, elegantly threaded through the book, you can hear the voice of a family holding tight to one another and frantically expressing love as a shield against an onslaught of pain. I’m not sure I’ve ever read anything that handles the decline of one’s children with such openness and searing, stumbling honesty. This sort of truth-telling is particularly difficult inside a family, where fictions are often deeply baked and compounded by what they have invented (or ignored) to survive tragedy. And this candor is always serving a larger purpose: “to arm other families with a sense of urgency that perhaps came to us too late,” Powers writes. “When symptoms occur in a loved one, assume the worst until a professional convinces you otherwise. Act quickly, and keep acting. If necessary, act to the limit of your means. Tough advice. Tough world.”

 

Powers’s stated objective, and one that he brilliantly fulfills, is “to persuade my fellow citizens in the Schizophrenic Nation that their ordeals, while awful, are neither unique to them nor the occasion for shame and withdrawal,” and “to demonstrate to those who fear and loathe ‘crazy people’ that these victims are not typically dangerous, weak or immoral, or in any other way undeserving of full personhood.” But he is less successful in his second goal: to call for America to “turn its immense resources and energy and conciliatory good will to a final assault on mental illness.” In doing so, he creates what feels like two books, alternating his family’s story with a densely reported, sometimes dizzying survey of mental illness through history, from 1403, when London’s notorious Bethlehem “Bedlam” Hospital first began accepting “lunaticks.” He shows how major leaps in science and innovation have found twisted applications in the care and treatment of the mentally ill — Darwin’s theories of evolution become the basis of Nazi eugenics; pharmaceutical companies promoted “wonder drugs,” freely exaggerating claims, playing down dangerous side effects and unjustifiably inflating prices. These are mainly horror stories, broken by the occasional crusader-heroes like Dorothea Dix, who fought for the establishment of America’s first mental hospitals in the 19th century.

More often, even the best intentions have had disastrous consequences. In the 1960s the deinstitutionalization movement shifted patients from large, crowded psychiatric hospitals to what was viewed as more effective and humane community settings. Today there are some 10 million Americans with mental illness and only 45,000 inpatient psychiatric beds, leaving the suffering to shuffle between “crisis hospitalization, homelessness and incarceration.” Jails and prisons are now the nation’s largest mental health care facilities. The worst data point: There are 38,000 suicides a year in this country, and 90 percent of the victims are mentally ill.

Midway through, the book fuses into a powerful coherence. Sweeping exposition and finely grained narrative weave together, as confusion, pain and uncertainty emerge in the Powers home. An email from Dean, in college in Colorado, about a football game — “I think that game was fixed, and probably by the government” — strikes Powers as odd. Dean’s behavior becomes erratic. His father blames drugs or alcohol.

Meanwhile, Kevin, studying at the Berklee College of Music, is increasingly anxious. Powers chalks it up to adolescence until Kevin calls at 4 a.m., giddy with the news that he has been selected to go on a concert tour of Russia. His parents try to make sense of it. “Such is the power of persuasion, or the need to believe, or something, that we tried to fit his announcement into some plausible context,” Powers writes. “He was pretty damn good, after all. Had he made it through an all-night winnowing process of deserving students?” When Kevin reports a few hours later that he’s boarded a Greyhound for Los Angeles, where he expects to be a rock star, they race from Vermont to intercept his bus. But they find that he had already been removed by a police officer and delivered to a hospital emergency room in Syracuse, where he was sedated. The doctor suspected bipolar disorder, which, he said, “was a better diagnosis ‘than the alternative,’ ” Powers writes. “Yet, uninitiated as we were, we thought that perhaps we knew.”

They learn, as does the uninitiated reader, how the mentally ill retain their humanity, with all its hues, through the perils of the damned, in and out of emergency rooms, chased by police officers, from one good day back into the abyss. Powers and Honoree do what all parents do. They fight right until the end, when they find their son’s body. Then they fight, with added ardor, to save their other son.

Dean also attempts suicide — but is rescued in time. He finds the right doctor, the right medicine, the right dose. He walks again in sunlight. Is he different, from peak to valley? Not in his essence, or in his bond with his brother, which animates the book. “I am grateful for the almost 21 years I was given with Kevin,” Dean writes in a letter to a local newspaper after his brother’s death. “And after God takes back a gift like Kevin, it is a small request to ask Him for enough hope and strength to endure the grief.”

Like many families that have struggled with mental illness, the Powerses have seen way beyond their reasonable share of darkness, but they do eventually find a kind of hope and strength. This brave book — which reads like the act of consecration it is — imparts both, and demands society do the same for all who struggle.

THE REST OF THE BOOBY CD!

Here are the other three pieces that Kevin and Booby recorded in Florida during that sublime all-night session in 2000 with his pal and bassist Peter Rogers and the promising young drummer Scott Shad.

Scott’s life ended in tragedy only a few weeks later. I lay out the details in Chapter 5 of NO ONE CARES ABOUT CRAZY PEOPLE:

Kevin’s voice was leaden when he called home in March. Scott Shad, the gifted young drummer who’d sat in on that magical recording session in Jacksonville, was dead. Scott was a diabetes sufferer. On March 6, he’d been caught without a needed dosage of insulin at the worst possible time.

Kevin explained the details in an email:

Subject: hey

Date: Thu, 08 Mar 2001 00:13:12

From: “Kevin Powers” <hoist@hotmail.com>

To: hfleming@adelphia.net, ropo@sover.net

hey guys-

. . . we found out that scott had a free period at school so he went to get a cd and on the way back I guess he had a seizure while he was driving on the highway and went across the lanes and into a building wall.

I’ve never known anyone as well as him who has died so its really weird. its just really really shocking on so many levels. how is dean?  give grammy my love and I’ll see you guys in a week or so

Kevin

He wrote another, even more heartfelt letter to the Cleveland novelist, screenwriter, musician and family friend Scott Lax. Scott was among the first to recognize Kevin’s talent, having met him and the family at the Bread Loaf Writers Conference in the 1990s. Scott formed strong bonds with both Dean and Kevin. He wrote to Kev after I had told him of my son’s devastation. Kevin replied:

Hey Scott-

Thanks for writing.  Its unbelievable how powerless I felt when it happened.  He was such a great guy and so inspirational.  I’ve never lost such a close friend before.  I think you’d like him-Never once had a negative thing to say all smiles and incredibly modest just an all around good kid.  He was a divine talent on the drums.  He played in another band that just got signed and has been together since Jr. High.  I don’t know what to do I know that I have to be strong but its hard knowing we won’t have a chance to play or just hang out anymore.  So it will be hard but I’ll have to cope with it.  But memories are everything, he was a happy kid so he had a happy 18 years which is the most important thing.

I hope we can keep in touch and if you have any advice on ways to deal

with this I’d like to hear it,

Kevin

Kevin himself  had less than five years to live.

KEVIN AND “BOOBY” TEAR THE ROOF OFF!

(From Chapter 5 of NO ONE CARES ABOUT CRAZY PEOPLE)

Kevin was in a frenzy for us to get to the airport parking garage when I picked him up for the last few days of winter break 2000. He was back home from a visit to his new Interlochen room-mate, who lived Jacksonville, Florida. Kevin had a surprise for me.

He dumped his guitar and backpack into the rear seat of the van, foraged in the backpack, then barreled into the front seat brandishing a CD in its jewel box, which he ripped open. I had hardly got the motor started when Kev shoved the disk into the car player and shouted, “I want you to hear this!”

I left the car in parking gear and we listened as the music started to play. Kevin turned up the volume and then peered intensely at me.

The songs were punk. But what punk! Six driving pieces of blazing force and disciplined musicianship—guitar, bass, drums and vocals. I had never been a fan of punk, but this was something else, something beyond. The songs surged forth, alternately seditious, playful, and charged with young-male defiance, typically toward a girl who’d thrown the young male over. “I won’t change myself for anyone,” the lyrics ran, and, “Why do we pretend that we were made for each other?” and “Why did you lie to get your way?” (When Pedant Father suggested a few days later that she had lied to get her way to get her way, Kevin shot Pedant Father a sidelong you-are-so-out-of-it look, and Pedant Father kept himself out of advice-giving after that.) The lyrics contained the requisite quotient of alienated-youth trashmouth; yet the songs were not dark at all. The words seemed to be present mainly to provide a superstructure on which to mold the magnificent music.

The longest and best of the six pieces was a fireworks display titled “Epistemological Commentary.” Kevin took his longest solo in that one, and it was out of this world: an intricate display of fast scale-running, up and down and up and down again; but shaped into an exhilarating musical idea. Kevin shifted chords upward near the end, and his guitar turned into a calliope, tootling away in some celestial circus of joy everlasting.

I didn’t say anything when it was over and the disk slid out of its slot. I didn’t want to trivialize what I’d just heard with some inane boilerplate comment. I think that I ended up just shaking my head, and putting my hand on my son’s shoulder. The only sound was of the van’s engine humming in the chilly parking lot.

Kevin had his lopsided grin working. He nodded. He understood.

At 16, he had just lived out a kid’s fantasy of a professional band’s studio session. In Jacksonville (this had been planned) Kev and his roommate Peter Rogers, a gifted classical and rock bassist, had rented a recording studio and a control board, which they worked themselves. They invited a third musician, a young, dynamic drummer named Scott Shad. Scott was a member of Inspection Twelve, a Jacksonville band on the cusp of its national debut with a CD titled “In Recovery.”

On New Year’s Eve, as Kevin told the story, the trio entered the soundproofed room, set the volume and tonal controls, and began playing. They recorded and re-recorded and edited throughout the night—a detail that richly flavored Kevin’s fantasy-come-true. By morning they had nailed it. They ran off several copies of the master, with the intention of sending them out to record companies. And they awarded themselves a suitably macho punk band name: Booby.

They sent their CD off to several places including an emerging musicians’ go-to website, garageband.com. It took the site about four months to begin posting the songs.

Subject: The rave reviews

Date: Sun, 06 May 2001 07:52:35 -0400

From: Ron Powers <ropo@sover.net>

To: Kevin Powers <hoist@hotmail.com>

Kev,

I assume you’ve been checking out the reviews of “Epistemological

Commentary” on garageband. They’re mostly over the top! I love the one

that says, “I’ve listened to a heap of songs on GB and this is the best

Punk song I have heard on the site thus far! This song rocks! That

guitar line is so damn cool I can barely stand it. . .” and on and on.

It must give you a tremendous rush to read this kind of praise. I also

notice that you’ve made the Qualifying Round and that your Punk ranking

is 100. I think you’re still on the way up, and next Wednesday should

give you a real boost from reviewers. Pass the word to Peter–you guys

are stupendous!

Love,

Dad

NOTE: “Epistemological Commentary” is the third track on the accompanying links. I will post the remaining three tracks later.

Ron Powers | Kirkus Reviews

When Kelly Rindfleisch wrote the words, “No one cares about crazy people,” she never dreamed Pulitzer Prize-winning, New York Times-bestselling author Ron Powers would read them.

“I cannot describe to you the emotion, the shockwave, that hit me when I read that quote,” says Powers, author of No One Cares About Crazy People: The Chaos and Heartbreak of Mental Health in America, who Kirkus reached at home in Castleton, Vermont.

Rindfleisch, who was Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s Deputy Chief of Staff, wrote the hateful words in a 2010 email uncovered by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. To her campaign colleagues, she mocked and dismissed the depredations of the Milwaukee County Mental Health Complex, where a woman being treated for bipolar disorder died of starvation. Where workers sexually assaulted and impregnated patients.

“The fact was ungodly abuses happened at the Milwaukee County Hospital that were medieval in nature,” Powers says. “The rape of patients, starvation, naked patients walking around, physical abuse—there it is, in our time. It’s not something you have to look in an encyclopedia to find.”

Powers is an award-winning writer with criticism, narrative nonfiction, and biography to his credit. He is the author of Mark Twain: A Life and coauthor of the No. 1 New York Timesbestseller Flags of Our Fathers, which was adapted into a film directed by Clint Eastwood. He and his wife, Honoree Fleming, a pioneering biochemist, are the parents of two sons, Dean and Kevin, who were diagnosed with schizophrenia in young adulthood.

“This is the book I promised myself I would never write,” Powers writes in No One Cares About Crazy People. “And promised my wife as well. I have kept that promise for a decade—since our younger son, Kevin, hanged himself in our basement, a week before his twenty-first birthday in July 2005, after struggling for three years with schizophrenia.”

No One Cares About Crazy People is a treatise on the state of mental health care in America today—how we arrived at the disgust, hostility, and ignorance embodied by Rindfleisch and her ilk. It’s also the emotional story of the Powers family’s struggle with the fearsome scourge of schizophrenia.

“I did not want to commodify my sons,” Powers says of his hesitation to include his family’s struggles in the booka decision that came at the behest of his literary agent, encouraged by his editors at Hachette. “I didn’t want to turn them into a profit center, even unconsciously. I didn’t want this to be a ‘poor daddy’ book. There are so many…unworthy motives you could [have] for writing a book like this.”

3.20 Powers_CoverPowers spent a decade researching nosology, political history, and structures of care and governance of schizophrenia (i.e., how the police and the courts treat the afflicted). In the book, he traces mental health care’s shocking history: from “Bedlam” asylum in London, the scene of centuries’ worth of shocking abuses, through American deinstitutionalization; the deleterious denial enacted by popular figures like Dr. Thomas Szasz, author of The Myth of Mental Illness and L. Ron Hubbard colleague; the noble mental health care initiatives of Presidents Truman and Kennedy and mass defunding by President Reagan; and the consequences for those living with the disease today, bumping up against untrained police, ignorant lawmakers, and fearful neighbors.

“Schizophrenia is different from depression, it’s different from hysteria, it’s different from any kind of bad mood or grudges or the kinds of things we all encounter,” Powers says. “It has a genetic component and it flows through families—probably, almost certainly, has flowed through mine, although no one in my family was ever diagnosed…. It must be understood as different, and it requires different solutions than I think we traditionally apply.”

Forced to bear witness to the inadequacies of our current system, Powers has issued a clarion call to arms: to do better by those with mental illness, their loved ones, and communities; to move toward ameliorative policies that consider their health, well-being, and civil liberties. In short, that we start to care about “crazy people.”

“I hope you do not ‘enjoy’ this book,” Powers writes. “I hope you are wounded by it; wounded as I have been in writing it. Wounded to act, to intervene. Only if this happens, and keeps happening until it needs happen no more, can we dare to hope that Dean and Kevin and all their brothers and sisters in psychotic suffering are redeemed; that they have not suffered entirely in vain.”

Megan Labrise writes “Field Notes” and features for Kirkus Reviews.

THE CHRISITIAN SCIENCE MONITOR REVIEW

via The Christian Science Monitor

‘No One Cares About Crazy People’ cries for more attention for the mentally ill

Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Ron Powers draws on heart-wrenching personal experience in writing about the way society treats the mentally ill.

The title of the new book by Pulitzer Prize-winning critic and biographer Ron Powers, No One Cares About Crazy People, is a quote from a disclosed email sent by an aide working in the Milwaukee County Hospital, a line the aide never intended to be made public but that summarizes all too accurately the attitudes – on a personal and institutional level – that Powers encountered in the course of dealing with the schizophrenia that afflicted both his sons while they were still barely into their teens.

His older son Dean and his younger son Kevin are portrayed in these pages with achingly tender precision as they experience normal rambunctious boyhoods and the beginning of seemingly ordinary teenage years – the school experiences, the girlfriends, a shared love of guitar-playing that Powers clearly loves to remember: “From [Kevin’s] solemn expression as the notes leaped and danced, you might have thought he was playing chess,” Powers writes. “And perhaps he was.”

But lurking under the surface of all this smiling family happiness was what Powers calls the “scourge” of schizophrenia. It developed early in both boys, and throughout the book, Powers interweaves his account of one family’s steadily-worsening crisis with a broader historical inquiry into how societies have dealt with the mentally ill, and specifically how American society deals with the epidemic today. According to the World Health Organization, fully a quarter of the world’s population will experience some kind of mental illness; “two thirds of these,” Powers writes, “either do not recognize that they are ill or simply refuse treatment.” In America, the National Institute of Mental Health studies indicate that more than 62 million adults require some combination of counseling or medical treatment for mental illness, and in his book Powers tells some of those countless stories as counterweights to his tales of Dean and Kevin enduring “the mercies of an unmerciful world.”

The worst of that unmerciful world, unsurprisingly, is the world of US prisons – a world that comes into the ambit of the book because of the legal problems his son Dean encounters. “The American prison system is an archipelago of barbarity,” he writes with damning directness. “In many important ways its assumptions and practices bespeak the Middle Ages.” According to a Department of Justice study, more than half of the country’s roughly 2 million prisoners suffer from some kind of mental health problem, and the ruthless squalor of their lives, the criminalization of mental illness reflected in their plight, fuels some of the book’s most scathing prose – as does the anti-psychiatry movement of the late 1960s and 1970s spearheaded by Thomas Szasz, author of “The Myth of Mental Illness,” and by L. Ron Hubbard, the science fiction writer who created Scientology.

Powers unflinchingly counts up the vast and varied costs of such movements, costs in human suffering on every level, from comfortably “normal” suburban kids like his own to the many hundreds of wretched victims whose untreated conditions propel them into deadly confrontations with the police. “What of the lengthening list of sufferers who have been shot dead by officers who saw their movements as threatening and had no training in the restraint of people in psychosis,” Powers asks, “in part because such training has been deemed unnecessary, given that ‘psychosis’ is a ‘myth’?”

Ron Powers has earned his right to publish a book as angry and revelatory as “No One Cares About Crazy People” – he’s paid the highest price a father can pay: his son Kevin hanged himself, and it was Powers who found the body (“A dusty little window just under the ceiling,” he writes in the nearly unbearable moment, “on his far side, allowed some weak morning light to play on his hair, not enough to fire up the gold”). He has shaped his pain into a sustained howl of incandescent outrage, a book too heartbreaking to be comforting (despite its glimmers of die-hard optimism) and too uncompromising to be ignored. It’s a book to stand comparison with Sylvia Nasar’s “A Beautiful Mind” but that is in many ways even more powerful, since Kevin and Dean are not math prodigies like that book’s main character but rather are the very picture of normal American boyhood until mental illness darkens that picture completely.

“I hope that you do not ‘enjoy’ this book,” Powers writes. “I hope you are wounded by it; wounded as I have been in writing it. Wounded to act, to intervene.” Readers of “No One Cares About Crazy People” will certainly feel that wound, and they will finish the book more convinced than ever of Powers’s central anthem: “Too many of the mentally ill in our country live under conditions of atrocity.” If any book can begin to change those conditions, this is the one.

FROM THE MOTHER OF A MENTALLY ILL SON, BEATEN (AGAIN) IN JAIL

From time to time on this blog, I’ve lamented the uncounted family members—mothers, mostly—who are aware of the hideous abuse their mentally ill children suffer in jails, and sometimes in care centers and by law enforcement; yet who choose to keep their voices muted for fear of stigma and possible retaliation by the abusers.

On Sunday I persuaded one such mother to let me share the latest of several testimonies that she has written and posted on a members-only website for families of SMI (serious mental illness) victims. I have withheld her name. It is the details, after all, that matter; not the specific identity.

This woman is hardly a malcontent: she is a Sunday-school teacher at her church, has had years of experience as a foster parent (including for refugee children) and is civic-minded in many other ways. What you will read below is not her first plea for help and understanding. Her son has been mistreated in all sorts of unthinkable ways: by the community and by “care-givers” as well as the violent inmate who attacked her son on Saturday night.

So, here is a rare public accounting of the ongoing private hell routinely suffered by those trapped in the sub-universe of mental illness. (I should note that this message has received a tremendous outpouring of concern and offers to help from fellow members on the site.)

Our society needs to hear many more such voices: enough voices, and enough response to those voices, to disprove the ironic title of my forthcoming book, NO ONE CARES ABOUT CRAZY PEOPLE.

“Ty is a victim again. Tyler our 18-year-old son was beat up last night in jail. The guy was a lot bigger than Ty. No one stopped it. Saturday night is commissary night. No one called the guards. They didn’t want to get locked in before they received their commissary. There are parts of it he doesn’t remember. They asked him a few questions, then he fell asleep. Thank God he woke up this morning. No one checked on him during the night. Why would you put a kid, who never has hurt anyone in with violent offenders? He has a headache and a black eye. He’s nauseated, feels drunk and tipsy. He was never checked on by a nurse or doctor. They don’t have a doctor, on weekends. This is concussion number 5 or 6. All have been severe. Another Traumatic brain injury! Getting beat up is nothing, new for my baby. This might not help his other problem, as he hears voices. If only they would have kept him in the hospital for long term. Out of 15 ER visits in under 2 years. Ty has only spent 2 weeks total inpatient. He’s been hearing voices for at least a year and a half. He’s never been stable. Hope they take him to the hospital to get him an MRI. Is that wishful thinking? He’s is going to see a forensic psychiatrist next month. Prayers, ya all! It’s us again! One song Ty is playing every instrument seperately, then mixed, in ghostbusters. The other song is my grandson, singing and Ty is playing. Ty wrote this song one Sat. afternoon In 15 mins., then played it for the first time. Titled ‘We are all God’s people.’ Just wish everyone else realized this!”

Update

Kimberlee Cooper-West is an unassuming mother, a Sunday-school teacher, and a civic volunteer who lives in a village of about a thousand people on the western border of Michigan, the state where she was born. (Not all that far, as I think of it, from the Interlochen Arts Academy, where my late son Kevin spent three happy years before succumbing to schizo-affective disorder.) Photographs on her Facebook page show her wreathed in family members, or busy at a Catholic charity event. She has had extensive experience as a foster mother. In short, she is one of the countless quiet pillars of community upon whom the cohesion of society depends.

It is a pretty safe bet that Kim West has never thought of herself as intersecting with a moment in history. And yet this intersection seems a possibility.

Kim West is the woman who a day ago gave me permission to reprint the post quoted at the top of today’s blog: a post that detailed the beating her young mentally ill son Ty endured in a jail cell from another inmate on Saturday night.

Kim had submitted her post to a site called the Circle of Comfort and Assistance, one of many “closed,” or private websites whose members are assured anonymity, and who in turn agree not to publish others’ writings without permission. She has been a sadly regular contributor.

I came across Kim West’s (latest) essay during one of my frequent visits to the CCA page. I could hardly contain my outrage, even though this kind of atrocity-account is hardly new to me. It was the accumulation of cruelty and neglect suffered by the boy that prompted me to intervene: years of unresponsive “care-givers,” draconian court decisions, hostility to the West family from within its community, and a string of prior beatings behind bars.I wrote and asked her for permission to reprint on this blog. I have made similar requests to other contributors in the past; have been turned down; and have honored their understandable wishes for privacy. Kim agreed. And this morning (Monday), she advanced farther out of the cold, into the light. She gave me permission to go public with her name, her family’s location, and more particulars of her son’s horrific–but not uncommon–treatment by the “normal” world around him.

I should also mention that Kim West’s fellow CCA members were also stirred to fury and compassion. A long thread of reactions to her complaint offered equal measures of sympathy, excoriations of the region’s mental-health “system,” and generous helpings of advice: get a lawyer. Contact the ACLU. Call the governor and your representatives in Congress. Alert a newspaper or three to what is going on. Raise hell. At least one of them, Marie McAuley Abbott, of Pontiac, Michigan, the mother of a mentally ill son named Kyle, decided today that she would join with Kim. She posted, and gave me permission to re-post:

“Kyle has been without any power since last Wed. No one from CMH or his guardian has called to check on him! My daughter picked him up and kept him for awhile and now I have him. I live an hour from him! He could be laying somewhere dead and they would never know. They are in charge of him! I’m sorry for all the other people in his complex with no one looking out for them!”

Until Kim West, and now Marie Abbott, decided to step out of the cold and into the light—into what James Agee called “the cruel radiance of what is”—calls to action from within the world of the afflicted have largely fallen on deaf, or at least closed ears.

For decades. For centuries.

Families and friends of the insane do not want to talk about their, and the victim’s, problems. They choose to draw a protective blanket of silence around themselves, for the same reasons of combat veterans have done, and families of cancer victims.

The reasons have to do with the dread of stigma and shame, and even reprisal.

For veterans:

If I tell the truth about what I saw and did in the war, my buddies will call me a rat. And a crybaby. If I talk about my night-sweats and nightmares and heavy drinking, they’ll laugh and say I couldn’t take it. Coward. And anyway, it’s unspeakable.

Or in the case of cancer:

If I talk about my husband’s cancer or put that into the obituary when he dies, my friends will find it sickening and turn away. Or they’ll think maybe I’ve got it too, and it’s catching. And anyway, it’s unspeakable.

Or in the case of severe mental illness:

If word of this gets out, people will think my daughter is a monster. They’ll think my son is a criminal. Or that I gave it to him. Or they won’t think at all; they’ll just want her put away somewhere, out of sight. They think crazy people aren’t even human anyway.

Or bigotry to that effect.

This silence has devastated mentally ill individuals, and it has devastated the sub-universe of the insane. The silence has erased mad-people’s human identity and rendered them mere abstractions. What’s the problem with slashing public spending for. . .abstractions? Why be concerned if an abstraction gets beat up in jail, or left homeless, or shot dead in the street?

Because of this pervasive self-inflicted silence, the persecution of the mentally ill has not changed in many ways since the opening of Bedlam Asylum. Seven hundred years ago.

And now a quiet church-going community volunteer and family woman in a Wisconsin village has said to herself and to the world,

No more.

I am going to be silent no more.

This is the way mass movements begin. With a quiet mother deciding, No more. With a mild assistant department-store tailor deciding that she did not want to move to the back of the bus. With a sickly woman visiting insane asylums in Massachusetts and coming back to report on what she had found. With a tiny legal representative decided to march two hundred forty-one miles from the Sabarmati Ashram to Dandi, on the coast of the Arabian Sea, in India, to pound salt.

Lest anyone think that the possibilities I’m imagining here are overblown, let us be clear: as I write, the interests—including the survival interests—of insanity victims in America are in extremis. The Republican president and the Republican-controlled Congress seem to have it within their grasp to destroy the Affordable Care Act, and with it, the most important source of funding for hospitals, care centers, doctors, and medications essential to these victims’ continuing status as human beings.

The mighty lords of politics in our time could not care less about any of this. It is going to be up to the small, quiet women of our society, the unacknowledged pillars of our little communities, to save the insane.

Kimberlee Cooper-West, Marie Abbott—this is your moment. History is waiting.

 

Watch “Got us Fallin In Love Again, Usher, by Ty West” on YouTube

Watch “Ghostbusters, remix by Ty West” on YouTube

Watch “We Are All God’s People, written by Tyler West” on YouTube