ANOTHER MENTALLY ILL INMATE DIES IN JAIL

In NO ONE CARES ABOUT CRAZY PEOPLE, I write, “Too many of the mentally ill in our country live under conditions of atrocity.”

Here is one more among the unending examples of what I mean: Inmate, 23, who died in Orleans Parish jail Wednesday identified.

THE FIRST REVIEW OF NO ONE CARES ABOUT CRAZY PEOPLE

Book Review

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.

Adventures in Audioland

ron powersBack in the Friendly Confines (credit to Ernie Banks) of Castleton after completing work on the audiobook version of NO ONE CARES ABOUT CRAZY PEOPLE. The project was accomplished at a beautiful, hilltop, state-of-the-art recording sound studio, Guilford Sound, in the woodsy Green Mountains of Southern Vermont. http://guilfordsound.com/ The owner is the innovative former rock drummer Dave Snyder.

ron powersFar from an easy job (imagine filibustering a bill for four and a half days, or being Chris Matthews), yet worth the throat-tearing effort on a number of levels.

The process put me back in touch with the book in a far more concentrated, analytical way even than the process of writing it, which was strung out over more than two years.

Also, it amounted to a good prep (I hope) for any interviews that might come my way.

Finally—a bit of inside baseball here—no more foolproof method exists for detecting flaws in one’s work than reading it aloud. And yes, dammit, I came across some passages that cried out for further attention–including matters of repetition, which is one of my bad habits. Including matters of repetition, which is one of my bad habits. Ha-ha! a little writerly humor there!!
The process is highly physical. Reading aloud involves the entire body, even when one is sitting down. (I was often distracted by the vigorous circling motions of my own right hand as I read; and my creaking chair caused an unseemly number of re-takes.) The strain of it makes you aware of certain muscles in the throat that you seldom use to the point of stress. You become aware in part because, late in each day, you find that you cannot count on these flabby muscles to form the sounds you expect them to; they’re tired of it. Your mouth might be forming an “O,” but what comes out is a measly little “eeeee.” So you pause to go back and do it again, hoping to get there before the producer blares in your headphones, for about the eight hundred nineteenth time, “COULD YOU GO BACK AND DO THAT AGAIN?!”

A sip of water helps, but the price of sippage is seepage. Audible seepage. You must sit still for several seconds while the sip makes its way through your digestive system, every drip and gurgle of the journey dutifully recorded by the CIA surveillance-grade mic in front of your face, put there to ensure that no sound gets lost in the telephone-sized booth in which you are being held without bail.

You realize—horrors!—that the process does not stop when the workday ends. When at last you are ensconced in a booth in a local diner, reading the newspaper while spooning up the chili con carne, you come to a Twilight-Zone kind of realization: as you silently read the words on the page, you can hear yourself narrating them through your mind’s ear, in the same annoying singsong voice you have been spewing forth all day, as you involuntarily calibrate which syllables just ahead need theatrical stressing.

And here you thought showbiz was pretty.

What I liked best about the experience was the collaboration: with the very cool young sound engineer Matt Hall across the window in the Vermont studio (see photograph), and with an amazing blithe spirit and gifted producer named Bob Walter, who directed everything through our earphones from his own studio in Los Angeles. Bob immersed himself fully in the nuances of the book, and coaxed me gently into more fitting intonations at several points. The three of us were Very Professional and Serious in the early going, until we (inevitably) stumbled upon the realization that we were all born world-class wiseasses; at which point every “COULD YOU GO BACK AND—” break in the narration was filled by an interlude of wacky voices, improvised shtick, name-dropping and outrageous insults. Our antics kept the inevitable tension at a minimum and made the hard work go easier.

All of this in the service of an audiobook that I hope will convey my full measure of love for my beautiful sons, Dean and the late Kevin, and my passion for illuminating the great human tragedy of schizophrenia, the affliction that took over their lives yet did not manage to extinguish their soaring human spirits.

The audiobook is in post-production as I write. Plans are to integrate excerpts from the boys’ guitar performances as they coincide with elements of the narration.

ANNIE DON’T WAKE THE DAY

Dean and Kevin recorded this rollicking ballad in 2004. It is among the best of several pieces the two of them produced over that summer, a happy time for both of them, when Kevin visited his older brother in Dean’s Colorado Springs apartment. Kev’s schizophrenia had forced him to suspend his music education at the Berklee’s Music School in Boston, and the ensuing year would be his last. But this summer was filled with creative effort and close loving friendship between the two brothers.

Dean wrote and sings lead on “Annie Don’t Wake the Day.” He also created the visual montage that accompanies this song on YouTube. At about the 1:45 mark, the boys launch into blazing alternating guitar solos: Dean/Kevin/Dean/Kevin.

THE RIVER EAST OF HOME

Of all the music Dean and Kevin wrote and recorded together, this ballad is far and away my favorite. It is a quietly transfixing anthem of wayward drift and redemption. Dean composed it not long after his recovery from an addiction to alcohol that had taken hold of him after a terrifying car accident when he was 16, with him at the wheel. The boys recorded it at Dean’s apartment in Fort Collins, Colorado, where he’d invited his brother, by then afflicted with schizophrenia, to spend several months with him. Dean sings lead; Kev sings harmony and contributes the majestic solo midway through, which I describe below.

 

FROM CHAPTER 15 OF NO ONE CARES ABOUT CRAZY PEOPLE, “. . .something unexplainable. . .”

Dean’s self-willed recovery—reprieve is probably the better word—held benefits for his younger brother. Kevin was able to make it through his spring semester [at the Berklee School of Music] without another setback.  Dean invited him to spend the summer in Fort Collins, passing up the chance to return to his beloved Front Range for road-building work. He had rented an apartment on the first floor of a modest brown wood-frame house in a residential neighborhood not far from the university campus. Kevin gratefully accepted, bringing with him his Martin and amp, and the prescription drugs that were now a part of his daily obligations.

The two of them had a fine old time, the best time of their lives together. They played coffeehouses and bars around Fort Collins and along the winding mountain roads above the city. Sometimes Kevin set aside his guitar and backed Dean up on a borrowed drum-set, playing as though it were the only instrument he had ever touched. Dean wrote a new flurry of ballads, including the two best pieces of his life, and the brothers captured them all on the TEAC recorder that Dean had used for his earlier songs. When Honoree and I arrived for a mid-summer visit, the two were as eager to let us hear them as Kevin had been to play the Booby pieces for me in the Burlington airport two years earlier. They tugged us into Kevin’s room almost before we had set our bags down, and flipped on the TEAC.

We listened first to “Annie Don’t Wake the Day,” Dean’s madcap romp about a night on the town with a frolicsome, laughing girl who skips and dances through the revels, sits in briefly with a bar band, then whirls on, “back out on the street with the bright lights shinin’ away.” Dean sings lead vocals and alternates with Kevin in a jubilant guitar bridge, two solos apiece, the brothers driving hard, a pair of young tigers bursting loose from their cages.

“It’s been a long, crazy night, but don’t wake the day!”

That was for starters. The anthem that followed, the cathedral of notes and lyrics that meditate on loss and journey and hope, on redemption-through-letting-go, stopped our breathing and cupped us in its guileless majesty.

Its title was—is—will always be—“The River East of Home.” Dean wrote it and sang lead; Kevin, harmony. A bridge in the midst of the verses brings up Kevin’s guitar in a cascade of notes that seem to fall from a high place and gather for a moment in a pool before overflowing and dropping again, until they find resolution in the flowing melody at the base.

The opening image is of a figure on horseback, forging along a western mountain path until horse and rider fetch up “at some forgotten fountain.” The rider tries to push his filly on through. “But though it wasn’t wide/She buckled and she balked/She couldn’t see the other side.” The rider tells us of his years of roving between the wilds and mountains. Sometimes he’s on an Arizona highway, right down that center line. Sometimes, crossing water, he falls, and stays down “until I’m good and ready. When I can’t fight the current no more/You’ll find me in the eddy.”

 

But always, the chorus tells us, the rider is searching. Just as Yeats’s wanderer searches for the silver apples of the moon, the golden apples of the sun, the rider is on a quest for the elusive River East of Home. It sounds as though his quest will be eternal. But then, “One chipped and faded chapel shines up out of the valley.” The rider ventures through the doorway, because a voice, long forgotten, calls him. “I said my life’s been driftin.’ He said that there’s an answer. And if I just believe, this slender reed becomes an anchor.

“I let the river go.”

PLANS FOR THE BLOG

On Friday (February 3), Honoree, Dean and I will leave for a week’s midwinter getaway.

On our return on February 13, I will resume preparing blog entries that will alternate between topical developments and commentaries regarding mental health, brief excerpts from NO ONE CARES ABOUT CRAZY PEOPLE (to be published on March 21) and videos/audios of Dean and Kevin performing their music.

I have asked my administrator to publish some of their songs in the coming week, to be refreshed every third or fourth day. I hope you enjoy them. In the meantime, I urge you to keep abreast of national political developments, particularly the ones that involve the future of mental healthcare policy. I welcome any suggestions you may have for coverage or commentary. You may leave them on this blog or on my personal Facebook page, at https://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100012275493034

My best to everyone in the coming week!

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