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.
Beginning in a few days, I will be posting, on this blog, some audio and, later, video tracks of my late son Kevin in performance. These will showcase his more mature work–if “mature” is the right word to describe a gifted young musician who, in the fog of schizophrenia, took his life a week before his 21st birthday in 2005. I’ve published a few pieces before this, but they feature Kev mostly as an early adolescent, sometimes in duets with his older brother Dean–who also was struck by schizophrenia, but who is stabilized at age 35.
I have mixed feelings about offering up these audios and videos. From a personal standpoint, it is still difficult for my wife Honoree and me to hear Kevin’s music sixteen years after he left us. Until this past weekend, I had not been able to bring myself to look at the videos–recorded mostly at the Interlochen Academy for the Arts, where he spent his prep years–since his death. Last week I finally braced myself, dug the cassettes out of storage, and brought them to a technician in nearby Rutland for transfer to the MP4 format, which enables editing and sending the material to my blog administrator. On Saturday, notified that the transfer was ready for viewing, I returned to the studio. I made myself stand beside the technician and watch the monitor screen as it shifted from blue to footage of the Interlochen jazz ensemble, with a T-shirted Kevin pumping out one of his glorious solos. I held it together. At this writing, Honoree has not viewed the tapes, but she has signaled her determination to do so.
The second reason for my mixed feelings is related to the first. This blog is followed by many parents who have lost children of their own to the awful scourge of schizophrenia. It doesn’t take much imagination to understand that many of these good, bereaved people will experience the pain of recovered memory as they watch. For this, I am genuinely sorry.
Yet my reason for posting these sounds and images of Kevin has nothing to do with indulging my own sorrow, nor of activating anyone else’s. It certainly has nothing to do with promoting Kevin as somehow more deserving of attention than the countless other young victims of brain disorders. Quite the opposite: my goal is to celebrate the tremendous joyful life-force that was Kevin–and, by extension, the equally precious, and unique life-forces within all his brothers and sisters who have been taken or diminished by serious mental illness.
Every parent or other surviving relative of a mental-illness casualty harbors rich memories of a child in the full exuberance of his or her life–a time of hopes and dreams unlimited, until the unthinkable occurred.
Kevin was nothing if not generous and humble–he was “notorious” for giving up his own solo time to fellow musicians who yearned for a little spotlight. He would have held these young people in his big-handed embrace. He would have insisted, correctly, that each one of their lives was as precious and filled with potential as his own. He would have insisted on consecrating his music to all the beautiful young souls who seldom if ever enjoyed the pleasure of a “solo,” yet enriched the earth around them, each in his or her own way.
So, please: if you can, enjoy Kevin’s music in the same celebratory spirit that he played it: the spirit of life, and laughter, and friendship, and of giving up a solo to a friend every now and then.
Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Powers (Mark Twain: A Life, 2005, etc.) presents two searing sagas: an indictment of mental health care in the United States and the story of his two schizophrenic sons. Having previously published notable books in the realms of biography, media criticism, small-town ethnography, investigative journalism, and memoir, the author once again demonstrates his versatility. The unforgettable title of his latest book derives from a callous comment made by a politician in 2010. As Powers demonstrates through in-depth reporting and his own personal experience, even when those in positions of authority sincerely believe in the importance of helping those who are mentally ill, meaningful care tends to receive short shrift at budget time. The author never wanted to write a book about mental health because of the nightmares that would arise discussing highly personal matters. However, he decided that the urgency for improved mental health policy and funding in this country compelled him to forge ahead with a manuscript. By the time of his decision, nearly a decade had passed since his younger son, Kevin, had hanged himself in the basement of the family home a week prior to his 21st birthday. Then, as Powers and his wife continued in the grief and healing process, their only remaining child, Dean, began to show signs of schizophrenia. A psychotic break on a Christmas morning melted away the author’s resolve to refrain from writing this book—and readers are the beneficiaries. Powers intends for the book to comfort families dealing with severe mental illness, to shock general readers with examples of atrocities befalling the mentally ill, to show that “crazy people” are rarely dangerous to anybody but themselves, and to push for significant reform. “I hope you do not ‘enjoy’ this book,” he writes in the preface. “I hope you are wounded by it; wounded as I have been writing it. Wounded to act, to intervene.” This hybrid narrative, enhanced by the author’s considerable skills as a literary stylist, succeeds on every level.
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.
Earlier this week I posted a call for caretakers of the mentally ill–usually parents, siblings and offspring–to throw off their habitual cloak of invisibility and silence, and launch a crusade against public cluelessness and apathy; in particular, public policymakers. The link below, focusing on my home state of Vermont, shows just one example of legislative inertia: the ongoing crisis of too few beds for too many patients in psychotic states:
And here is one searing response to my call for speaking out:
“I wonder what I would do if Tom should decide he can no longer bear this burden. If I should find him gone one morning. Would I lay down beside him, hug his lifeless body in my arms, and go to meet him? Or would I give my life to him? Tom’s voices threaten to kill him and his family. From his letters for help, which are heartbreaking, he says “they are certainly adding other types of frequencies that are causing extreme agitation, sometimes depression, anxiety, stress; voices described as scary or haunting or terrorizing; more death threats against me and my family and they won’t quit. I have driven as far as the coast and cannot get this off of me. The police just come and put me in the hospital. I don’t know how to be more clear to them and they aren’t listening at all”. What if, in the dark of night, in his madness, he did not see the mother he loves but a horrifying delusional apparition there to harm him and his family; perhaps the act of killing me would finally get him the help he needs, a chance to quiet the voices and terrifying paranoia, and find some peace.
“I have only been afraid of Tom once, his delusions of people coming to harm him, and me not understanding. I never know the right thing to do or say. His brain is screaming at him, voices only he can hear, shouting down any shred of reason that may be left. His despair and fear so great I am afraid he will lash out at anything, anybody nearby, not knowing what he is doing in his insanity. Any suggestions of getting help are met with incredulous sighs and anger. Why don’t I listen, why don’t I understand, I am the one that needs a doctor, I am the one that is in denial. I hide the knives that night.
“We leave Tom alone now. He doesn’t talk anyways, he doesn’t hear us, or if he does he responds with something unrelated and unintelligible. I buy health food and leave it around, hoping he will get some nutrition in him He isolates in his room, sometimes for weeks at a time, not bathing, sitting so long his feet and legs swell up so bad he can barely walk, drinking coffee. He is going mad in the room I had remodeled for him, to keep him safe for as long as I could. I pray he will go into a coma and I can now call and say come get him and help him, he is a danger to himself.
“I go to do the dishes, but they are already done. I don’t remember doing them. I lose track of time, I wait. The wolf at the door will surely come bursting thru any day now; it is almost six months of no meds. One afternoon Tom comes to me, puts his arms around me and says ‘I love you mom.’ I’m still a light in his mind, I’m still there.
“The months go by. I ask myself how much worse can it get, but I already know, much worse. My nightmares turn into terrifying faces coming out of the dark.”
My upcoming book’s title, NO ONE CARES ABOUT CRAZY PEOPLE, is intended as ironic: it is taken from a notorious, subpoenaed email written in 2010 by an administrative aide to Scott Walker. The aide was trying to shield the then-Milwaukee County Executive from accountability for a mental-hospital scandal that was unfolding at the time.
In the few weeks that I have been publishing this blog, I’ve found myself thinking about an alternative title, one that lacks irony and only somewhat overstates the truth.
That title would be: NO ONE KNOWS ABOUT CRAZY PEOPLE.
For centuries, society has hired, or elected, custodians to see to it that the mentally tormented are kept out of sight and out of—well, out of mind. Those who take for granted their place in the “normal” world prefer to sidestep the colossal moral challenge—the primal fear—triggered by walking, talking evidence that people very much like them can go insane. (“There, but for the grace of jails. . .”) Thus, the mentally ill continue to struggle for their humanity under a cloak of social invisibility, and silence.
None of this is to suggest that people in the throes of psychosis should be left to roam the streets. Hospital treatment and supervision are imperative during such episodes. The problem is this: despite the growing consensus among research psychiatrists that a patient’s integration into a sympathetic community can dramatically reduce the symptoms of brain disorder, progress toward this goal remains slow: impeded by the cloak of invisibility and silence.
Few people have better understood the human spoilage guaranteed by this cloaking than the great pioneering reformer Dorothea Dix, whom I quote in the epigraph to NO ONE CARES ABOUT CRAZY PEOPLE. In remarks to the Massachusetts legislature prepared in December 1842, following her tour of mental asylums in the state, the small and sickly crusader declared:
“I have come to present to you the strong claims of suffering humanity. I come as the advocate of the helpless, forgotten, insane men and women held in cages, closets, cellars, stalls, pens; chained, naked, beaten with rods, and lashed into obedience. . .”
Time has brought improvement to the plight of insanity victims caught in psychosis—the untreated, the undiagnosed, the wrongfully incarcerated, those who refuse to confront their illness and aggressively repel efforts at help.
Time has not brought enough improvement. Not early enough improvement.
The cloaked suffering of the mad thrives, and it thrives. NO ONE CARES is laced with accounts of insane jail and prison inmates, many of them unindicted, who took their lives in their cells or in solitary confinement (I hope against hope that you might read this, Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey, and reverse your support for this gruesome form of soul-murder), and who thus died beyond the range of public attention, save for a few readers of transient news accounts.
Thus, “No One Cares” is fed by “No One Knows.” The two collide, and collude.
Thus far in this essay I have focused on the “invisibility” aspect of “No One Knows.” Of equal destructive importance, I believe, is the silence. The self-imposed silence that mutes the voices of those most entitled—and, I think, obliged—to break the silence.
I speak of the close friends and relatives, parents especially, of the afflicted. These people are qualified not by professional training or certification, but by a precarious vantage-point that no one else can share who are uniquely qualified by direct observation with psychosis.
And yet here is one of the most desolate truths about “No One Knows”: it is far too often a by-product of silence. Self-imposed silence. Silence maintained by those closest to the victims of mental illness who are in active psychotic states. This usually means their relatives. Typically, “relatives” means parents. And “parents” often includes the sub-category of single mothers, women who for one reason or another have been left to care for their volatile children—often male children, as a statistical fact. (Men typically develop schizophrenia between ages 15 and 24; women, between 25 and 34.)
Left to care, and left to scream in silence as police and community social-service agencies designed to help them often fail during episodes of crisis—or in pre-crisis. Police remain under-trained in this area, or not trained at all. In too many cases, the desk-man either shrugs off the frantic phone call or the squad arrives only to make matters worse. Paramedics and social workers feel hamstrung by coils of legal restrictions created to protect the civil rights of people in psychosis who “reason” that they don’t need help. (People in psychosis are, by definition, people deprived of reason.)
And so the family caretakers scream in silence—while their deracinated children scream aloud their suicide threats or violent threats against others, often including the caretakers, as the untreated psychosis deepens. and the cop on the phone explains (in essence) that the screamer cannot be detained unless he or she “constitutes a threat to others,” and that the uttered threat is not enough; the psychotic victim must actually carry out the threat, which, of course, in theory, law enforcement exists to prevent.
The caretakers scream in silence. And their urgent silent screams go unheard by the world around them. And the cloak remains in its suffocating place.
The reasons for self-imposed silence aren’t hard to track down. They’re rooted in human nature. The fear of embarrassment—stigma—is a fundamental one. To appeal publicly for help for a struggling insane relative is to acknowledge that one has an insane relative. Most people live their lives outside the community’s spotlight. To step into its glow for any reason can be terrifying. The imagined shame and ostracism such an admission might bring on is a powerfully, and sometimes fatally inhibiting burden.
Anxiety over the future of the victim is another. What if everybody knows she is schizophrenic? She will never get a job! She will never have friends! She will never marry!
And then there is the soul-crushing factor of futility. America, especially rural and suburban America, remains dotted—clotted—with service agencies, police departments, and courts that remain either stubbornly self-anesthetized to the gothic realities of psychosis, or else are paralyzed by the fear that any action they take might violate some law or statute or other restriction, real or imagined, that would make them civilly liable or criminally accountable for carrying out a good-faith intervention. Thus, far too many desperate mothers and fathers have called police, hospitals, lawyers—anybody—for help, against a background of menacing threats and the pounding upon a locked door, only to be told: “There is nothing we can do.”
This is surreal. This is grotesque. This is beyond the imagination of anyone in the “normal” world; only those who have endured it can appreciate the resulting dread that soaks the heart and blots out hope.
Schizophrenia has struck at both my children; once, fatally. I understand the heartbreak, the dread, the galactic frustration of my fellow survivors and sufferers who must watch their loved ones slip into a state that the world would prefer not to hear about, nor try to heal. I understand the powerful protective wish to remain silent.
And yet, in my core, I cannot accept the silence. I cannot accept it because silence is the lifeblood of “no one knows,” which in turn is the lifeblood of “no one cares.”
In my core, I want to confront all the silent sufferers—“confront” is the only word—and shout at them to shout their stories from the rooftops: to badger the newspapers and radio and television stations in their communities to pay attention to their stories, and amplify them, urgently and accurately, and damn the risks of stigma and anxiety and imagined futility. I want my fellow sufferers to raise a collective voice all across the nationwide archipelago of the mentally ill. I want an impassioned, fearless grass-roots movement to rise up and intersect with the hopeful, but top-down breakthrough of the recently enacted 21st Century Cures Act.
I want the “invisible” mothers and fathers and caretakers of our most helpless citizens to take up the banner of Dorthea Dix, and affront the conscience of emergency responders, police, doctors, judges, and the largely oblivious and benumbed legislators across the country. I want to see a great and vital conversation burst into public awareness: a conversation that until now has been conducted under the cloak: in furtive telephone calls, emails, hushed conversations, and within the several “confidential” websites where members may speak candidly under strict rules of confidentiality.
All these conversation forms are cathartic. None is enough.
I grant that my career choices have annealed me to public exposure and its consequences. My training and experience, now spanning five decades, has been in journalism, which has in turn led me to nonfiction narratives. Over this time I have learned gradually to overcome my own severe native reticence, and to place truth-telling (as I understand it) above all other considerations. I have grown comfortable with violating my own privacy. NO ONE CARES ABOUT CRAZY PEOPLE, if it is nothing else, is a testament to this.
I respect—I ache for—my good, grieving, terrified sisters and brothers who cannot yet imagine shouting their stories from the rooftops, seizing the world by its lapels and screaming, “YOU’VE GOT TO PAY ATTENTION!” I wish I could deliver them from their agony. I cannot. The hard truth (as I understand it) is that they must do it themselves, until their individual voices meld into one continuing thunderous voice. We must throw off the cloak. No one will do it for us.
Yesterday he vetoed a bill that would have limited the use of solitary confinement. (As one of the most demonstrably mind-destroying forms of punishment available, it should be banned altogether, everywhere.) Now he is restricting funds for the most abject members of society, the seriously mentally ill. This points not only to Christie’s particular brand of heartlessness, but also to the destructive myopia of too many public officials about the hellscape inhabited by “crazy people.”
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.
A new advance notice for NO ONE CARES ABOUT CRAZY PEOPLE (due March 21) has arrived–from Dr. E. Fuller Torrey, one of the true statesmen and -women of mental health-care reform. I’m humbled to receive it:
“Ron Powers and his wife never expected to visit the exotic lands of schizophrenia until their two sons became affected. A gifted professional writer, Powers takes the reader along on his explorations as he tries to understand why it happened and what to do. What he finds is ‘the most dreaded of all human mental disorders.’ Very readable and highly recommended.”
E. Fuller Torrey, MD
Author, Surviving Schizophrenia
Click here to read more advance notices for No One Cares About Crazy People.