The Best Books of 2017
People magazine just named No One Cares About Crazy People one of The Best Books of 2017.
Click here to order a copy today.
This horrific story, originally reported by the excellent Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel and picked up by Slate a couple days ago, is yet another demonstration of my assertion in NO ONE CARES ABOUT CRAZY PEOPLE that “too many of the mentally ill in our country live under conditions of atrocity.” Terrill Thomas’s death by slow, deliberate, guard-induced dehydration while in solitary confinement at a Milwaukee County jail is an abomination, and a part of a larger national abomination. Our society must demand an end to solitary confinement!
Mike Miner and I were inseparable buddies in our last year in the School of Journalism at the University of Missouri. In those lamb-white days of spring 1963 that meandered innocently toward the world-shattering assassination of the following fall, we rollicked through the kind of friendship that has mostly gone missing in the present world of dread and suspicion and the bristling arsenals of hip.
We played some college pranks. One of them I think involved a football in a classroom; I can’t remember much more than that. We covered sports together for the J-school daily newspaper, we got permission to resurrect the campus humor magazine, Show Me (recently banned for, horrors, profanity). We saved our quarters and pooled them to treat ourselves once a month to a $1.50 pizza in town. We went to the movies and entertained grateful patrons around us by shouting wisecracks at the screen. We showed our Brando-esque wildness (“What are you rebelling against?” “Whadday got?”) in other ways: by sliding saltshakers across restaurant table surfaces, hoping they would hover on the very edge, until one didn’t and the waitress rushed at us.
You know. Wild stuff like that.
And we talked and talked. About the “future.” About what we would “be.” And we wrote and wrote. Newspaper articles, jokes for the humor mag, stuff.
We kept the friendship together after graduation. Mike went into the Navy and I wangled a magazine assignment to Hawaii that coincided with his ship docking at Honolulu, and we did that town. (Saw the John Wayne/Patricia Neal navy movie “In Harm’s Way” together; walked out of the movie theater verklempt, although we’d never heard of that word then. Drowned ourselves in chocolate milkshakes.) Then I went back to Chicago and Mike went off to the South China Sea.
He made it through. After his tour was over, we newspapered together in St. Louis and then Chicago. Toured Ireland and London, and my easy, delightful companionship tested the limits of Mike’s capacity to long-suffer.
And then. . .you know. . .time is the longest distance between two places. . .I headed to New York; Mike stayed in Chicago.
I always believed that Michael was destined to be the major writer between us. He knew theater, and knocked out several good plays and wonderful poems. His wit was sly and dry, and his literary gifts even then were enormous. He was better than I ever was. Still is.
And lo and behold, he did become the major writer. At a weekly paper called The Reader, he has built a name for himself as an institution of superb, intrepid reporting and a writing style that could keep company with Ben Hecht, Mike Royko, all those Windy City giants. Whereas I was kind of a nomad, Mike committed himself to a place, and mined it deeply for story. Some other pretty good writers have done that. Faulkner.
We kept in touch a little. Facebook made it easier when it came along. Still, it was sporadic.
In July 2005 the “future” arrived for me. Right between the eyes. My younger son Kevin, deep in schizoaffective disorder, hanged himself in the family basement.
A decade later I got it together enough to write my book about mental illness: NO ONE CARES ABOUT CRAZY PEOPLE.
And then, this week, my old friend Mike showed up again. In the form of the review that you will find below.
You talk about verklempt. You talk about friendship.
Thanks, Mike. Game of saltshakers sometime?
As you read No One Cares About Crazy People you might think it’s two books or you might think it’s one. There’s the book author Ron Powers tells us that he set out to write—a critical history of societal responses to mental illness—and there’s the personal story that compelled him to write this book—the raising of two sons who became schizophrenic, one of whom killed himself. An agent told Powers that to write one he must write the other. And so he has.
For a time beginning in college and continuing to the Sun-Times—where he won a Pulitzer Prize for TV criticism in the early 70s—Powers and I were close and had the forward-looking conversations young men have. Never—I repeatedly thought as I turned the pages of Crazy People—did anything cross our imaginations close to what lay in wait.
Crazy People is his response to that rendezvous. It draws on the wit and anger I remember, on research compelled by circumstance, and on paternal devotion then untapped in either of us. Powers has collaborated before—with Ted Kennedy on Kennedy’s memoir, and with James Bradley on Flags of Our Fathers. In Crazy People, Powers, the reporter and stylish writer, collaborates with himself, the father with a story.
“The world of mental illness,” Powers writes, is everywhere; it hides in plain sight. “Its camouflage . . . little more than the human instinct to reject engagement with the pitiable, the fearsome, the unspeakable.”
Rather than illness we’d see witchcraft; rather than humans in need we’d see menace, and we’d feel a duty not to assuage agony but to hide it from sight. The places where the mad were hidden gripped the public imagination for their gothic mystery. Powers tells the centuries-long history of the London madhouse known as Bedlam; in Saint Louis, as he surely remembers from his years there, an institution for the mentally ill was known to one and all simply as “Arsenal Street.”
You kept your distance from Arsenal Street.
Mental illness can hide in plain sight because we don’t like to think about it. But take your own inventory as I take mine. Two members of my book group have grown schizophrenic children. One daughter’s closest childhood friend is schizophrenic; another daughter’s grade school Spanish teacher lost her husband when he was stabbed to death during a psychotic breakdown by their schizophrenic son.
Powers and his wife, Honoree Fleming, raised sons Dean and Kevin in Vermont, where Powers wrote and Honoree, a professor, taught biochemistry and did research. Both sons were bright and creative, and Kevin was a guitar prodigy. The instructors his parents found for him soon threw up their hands—they had no more to teach him. But he was not yet 21 when he hanged himself in the basement of his family’s home.
Do madness and creativity go hand in hand? Powers devotes a chapter to this ageless question, to which there are correlations to be cited but no clear answer. Asked by a teacher in grade school to identify human needs, Kevin wrote, “I need music.” He inhabited, his father tells us, an “inaccessible” inner world of music, though the yield of that world can still be sampled today, as in a concert at Interlochen and an album the two brothers recorded together.
Powers places emphasis on the power of stress to trigger psychosis, and much less emphasis on the role of genetics, though years earlier his own younger brother had killed himself. Creativity and stress were palpable presences in the young lives of Dean and Kevin, and it’s those lives that preoccupy their father.
One Friday night toward the end of Dean’s junior year of high school, he took a curve too fast and his car slammed into a tree. The understanding around town was that Dean had been drunk, though he wasn’t. The girl next to him suffered injuries she was years recovering from, and her parents crusaded to see Dean thrown in prison. The high school principal banned Dean’s picture from the yearbook. Awaiting sentencing, prison a clear possibility, Dean wrote, in an essay, “my life is like a river and I am being swept away helplessly.”
And in Crazy People his father writes, “These were the days and months and events, I am convinced, that launched my eldest son into his rendezvous with schizophrenia.”
But today, Powers reports, Dean’s last psychotic episode a few years behind him, “he seems in possession of himself, aware of his limitations, and ready to live on his own in the wider world.”
Powers also introduces readers to a word I’d never heard or read before: anosognosia, or, “the false conviction within a person that nothing is wrong with his mind.” Powers calls it a “cruel joke.”
I’ve always supposed the joke is that when the meds work they make the patient feel so clear-headed he decides he doesn’t need them any longer. So he hides his meds, as Kevin did, or flushes them down the drain. Then he reverts. Confronted, he lies. But Powers says changing a patient’s ways isn’t as simple as screaming sense at him or waiting for him to learn from experience. He says anosognosia is actually a physiological condition disrupting the brain’s ability to recognize the condition it’s in; it shows up in 50 percent of schizophrenia cases and 40 percent of bipolar cases.
As his book concludes, Powers puts anosognosia to use as a symbol of obliviousness and denial—our own. He has seen what the mentally ill ask of the world—which is simply a place in it.
“The mentally ill people in our lives, as they strive to build healthy, well-supported, and rewarding lives for themselves, can show us all how to reconnect with the most primal of human urges, the urge to be of use,” Powers writes. “To put it another way: the mentally ill in our society are awaiting their chance to heal us, if we can only manage to escape our own anosognosia and admit that we need their help.”
Does putting the shoe on the other foot this way seem a sentimental stretch? I would say yes—if Powers were writing only about a set of issues he wanted to wrap up in a fancy ribbon. But the project’s too personal for that. He’s told us stories about the mentally ill burned at stakes, chained in dungeons, flogged and lobotomized, and treated to à la mode theories that they’d do just fine if turned out onto the streets, that they aren’t really ill at all because crazy people are the only sane ones. This is the history of society’s predisposition not to give a damn about Dean and Kevin!
And Powers won’t have it. They speak and we must listen. They are his sons.
Back 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.
Far 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.
People tend to believe that writers write to make money. There’s actually something to that, given the givens. But dollars are not the only motive. Not all writers are obsessed with chasing the Golden Fleece of the Best Seller—not after building up the scar tissue of a few published-but-obscure books, anyway.
It has been my experience that writers who survive their shattered early dreams and press on are writers who care about the craft of writing. These writers write mainly to be understood.
This is why the endorsement of NO ONE CARES ABOUT CRAZY PEOPLE, written by Susannah Cahalan and posted below, means something special to me.Ms. Cahalan is the author of the 2012 New York Times bestselling memoir BRAIN ON FIRE: MY MONTH OF MADNESS. I have never met Ms. Cahalan, so I can’t say for certain whether or not she set out to write a best-selling book. My instincts tell me that this was a secondary consideration at best. My instincts tell me that she wrote this book for the reason most writers write good books. She wrote it because it was a book that she could not not write. She wrote it to be understood.
Susannah Cahalan was a young rising star of New York journalism and an avatar of the Fabulous life when at age 24 she was blindsided by a hideous brain affliction—triggered by a mysterious pathogen—that inflamed her brain, drove her to grotesque behavior, and threatened to obliterate her very identity. She was saved, and restored, through the intervention of an acutely observant physician after nearly everyone else had decided that she was a hopeless schizophrenic. In a sustained act of will nearly as arduous as the attack on her brain, she traced the narrative of her temporary madness by interrogating her own damaged memory and those of her relatives and friends. The result is a raw, eloquent, unsparing narrative of personal witness that now stands as a beacon for those who don’t understand the forces that can ravage our fragile brains, but who want to understand. Susannah Cahalan wanted to understand, and then to be understood.
I’m going on here a bit because I want to make it clear how much I value Ms. Cahalan’s notice, on two levels: first, as one “citizen” of the mental-illness sub-nation reaching out to another, and second, as a writer reaching out to a writer. We writing creatures are a lot less secure in our self-evaluations than you might expect by looking at our, uh, deathless prose. We spend a lot of time wondering whether we are making an imprint on the world, or even making sense.
Susannah Cahalan, you understand, and you deserve to be understood. Thank you.
SUSANNAH CAHALAN’S NOTICE:
“No One Cares About Crazy People” is a woefully necessary kick in the teeth to society’s understanding and treatment of mental illness. Reading Ron Powers is always an event — you can expect expert research and rich reporting in an engrossing style — but what makes this book soar is the passion of Powers’ conviction based off his own intimate experiences with schizophrenia. I put this book down days ago and I’m still reeling. It’s the rare book that breaks your life into a before and an after.
In the late 1990s I contributed commentaries to Vermont Public Radio. I often drew upon Dean and Kevin for subject-matter. This piece, broadcast in 1997, is one of my favorites, and captures my younger son in all his instinctual goodness and decency.
Ron Powers/VPR Commentary
Kevin and the Perfect Playboy Woman
Promo: This is Ron Powers. What’s the best defense against sleazy junk mail? Having a smart kid helps. Stay tuned for a few minutes and I’ll tell you what I mean.
Announcer’s intro: Researchers in Texas have discovered a new use for junk mail: it makes an excellent garden fertilizer. Commentator Ron Powers is not surprised.
Commentary: I was scooping out the daily tonnage of junk mail with a backhoe the other day—when I spotted an envelope that was different from all the rest. It was festooned with an oddly familiar logo; a pair of bunny-ears. It was addressed to my son Kevin. And then I spotted the legend stamped in the upper right-hand corner:
BULK RATE U.S. POSTAGE PAID BY PLAYBOY
Well, I opened it. Call me a nuidge. Inside were—guess what?–glossy photographs of young women with complicated hair, plunging décolletage and lip-gloss. But here was the zinger: a personal message for my kid: because of his, quote, “proven good taste,” he was being invited to represent, quote, “The Sophisticated Male of the Nineties” and help Playboy Magazine construct—I quote again—“The Perfect Woman.”
“You read it right!” the copy burbled. “From the many intelligent men in and around your state, we have selected YOU for our annual Perfect Woman Poll.” The potential rewards included a vacation for two in the Bahamas; round-trip airline tickets to anywhere in North America and lots of cash.
The next page listed the questions that Kevin would have to answer. The categories included “Vital Statistics” (the Perfect Woman’s measurements at bust, waist and hips); “Body Parts” (length and shape of legs, firmness of stomach, whether she should have an “innie” or an “outie”) and “Fashion Statements” (whether she should mostly wear bikinis, high heels, negligees, tattoos, handcuffs, or “nothing.”
Now, here’s what you have to understand about Kevin. He still carries the cat to bed with him. His passions include Monopoly, bagels with cream cheese, playing guitar and trying to make contact with Scottie Pippen of the Chicago Bulls. Are we talking Sophisticated Male, or what?
How Playboy found Kevin was not hard to figure out. A few months ago his older brother took part in a magazine subscription drive for the high school. The family all chipped in. Kevin’s choices were Snowboarding and Sports Illustrated. This got his name into the computerized data system of subscription lists, which magazines buy and sell to one another. Playboy was only a matter of time.
When Kevin got home from after-school ice skating, I asked him if he had ever thought what the Perfect Woman might be like.
He was still wearing an orange knit cap pulled down to his eyes, and his cheeks were scarlet from the cold. He gave me his sidelong, you’re-tricking-me look.
“Like a grown-up?” he asked after a minute. I nodded. His blue eyes trailed upward in thought.
“Smart. . .” he said. He thought again.
“Pretty. . .” he added.
“Who doesn’t smoke.
“A very nice attitude.
“Who skis or snowboards and likes to play sports.” His gaze turned quizzical again. “Why do you want to know?”
I told him he had received a brochure from Playboy Magazine asking for his ideas about the Perfect Woman.
“I did?” he asked. “Where?” and then: “Why did they write to me?”
I told him the letter mentioned his “proven good taste.” Kevin tilted his head. “How do I have good taste?” he asked. “What are you talking about?”
I decided to show him. He was excited at first—the name “Playboy” was not unknown in the corridors of his school—but when I put the brochure in his hands, he looked at it for several minutes, and his mood changed.
“Those people probably smoke,” he said quietly. He sifted through the enameled images of cleavage and fishnetting and pouty lips.
And then, walking out the door of my study: “I don’t want to think about it.”
You know what? The direct mail geniuses at Playboy Magazine got it right. The kid does have proven good taste. This is Ron Powers in Middlebury.
In case you’ve been kidding yourself that public care for the mentally ill is snugly enfolded in the bosom of America’s state government systems, and monitored by informed, crackerjack news organizations, take a look at the peculiar string of factoids stumbling forth from Oregon.The factoids originate in a verifiable event. On Dec. 1, Governor Kate Brown announced her plan to close down the Junction City Mental Health Hospital, which opened with great fanfare just 18 months ago; boasts a 174-patient capacity, and offers employment to 422 people in a community that needs every job it can get.
That, as Dan Rather used to say, is what we think we know at the moment. Beyond this base, information remains sketchy, motivations murky, the announced rationale questionable, and the future of the facility’s patients up in the air, where the futures of such unfortunate human beings generally reside.
The governor herself—a Democrat, by the way, and thought of as generally progressive—has attributed the necessity to, brace yourselves, a tight state budget. Tight budgets are virtually always given as the reason for tapping into funds and facilities for mental health care, which in turn are virtually always the first areas to be tapped in a budget pinch.
But is Oregon really suffering a budget pinch?
Governor Brown pointed to a “projected” $1.7 billion revenue shortfall set against expenses for 2017-19. She intends to narrow this gap partly by raising taxes on cigarettes, liquor, and hospitals (a grouping that one does not often encounter). Yet a “Revenue Outlook” released by Oregon.Gov begins by reporting that “Oregon’s general fund outlook remains stable” https://www.oregon.gov/das/OEA/Documents/revenue.pdf and that revenues “are expected to total $19,526 million in the 2017-19 biennium, an increase of 8.4% percent from the prior period,” although $40 million below the September forecast.
So, again, to paraphrase Donald Trump—“Pinch?—or no pinch?”
Even if the Governor is drawing upon more reliable comparisons than are readily available to an outsider, it seems peculiar, bordering on bizarre, that she would choose the Junction City Mental Health Hospital as a first-round sacrifice.
Junction City opened to great applause and greater hope in March 2015, its features harkening back to the exalted “Moral Treatment” designs of the 19th century. (The cost was either $180 million or $84 million, depending on which Oregon press account you read, a testament to the quality of press scrutiny. As of this writing, no major outlet has done an in-depth examination of the proposed closing or the political dynamics behind it. My own calls and emails to Oregon reporters are as yet unanswered.)
Its rehabilitative amenities include a library, spiritual center, hair salon, fitness rooms, classrooms, a gym, and outdoor quads. Patients can go on outings (after a review process, learn social skills and money management, acquire cooking skills and learn how to call for help.
And in case those humane offerings might strike some taxpayers as a little—oh—cushy for people who are, well, you know; consider this: the alternative to clinical rehabilitation is, typically, jail or prison. These systems, dumping-grounds for an obscene number of afflicted people, add up to a far greater drain on public revenues than does rehabilitation. Oh, and by the way, they tend to be unspeakably barbaric. To the sane and insane alike.
In early May 2015, less than two months after Junction City opened, a public-interest group called Disability Rights Organization (https://droregon.org/bhu/) released a report that found “Oregon prisoners with severe mental illness are routinely tasered, pepper-sprayed, isolated, and denied access to adequate mental health care.” (“Isolated,” by the way, means “placed in solitary confinement,” the single most devastating assault prison guards can levy on a mental-illness sufferer.”)
As I write in NO ONE CARES ABOUT CRAZY PEOPLE, this list of sanctioned atrocities has changed hardly at all from the horrors of Bedlam Asylum more than 700 years ago, save for the technology.
I will continue to monitor the developments surrounding Junction City in the coming days, and the bedrock reasons behind the governor’s decision. Meanwhile, the links below offer a fuller discussion of some of the points I have raised.