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Hugely moving and tragic memoir, EVERYTHING’S FINE about mothers, sons, & brothers…one with severe mental illness, a horrific tragedy, healing, more–Vince Granata and I chat about this and more


By Leslie Lindsay

An extraordinarily moving memoir about a family ripped from balance at the hands of a severally mentally ill individual, EVERYTHING IS FINE (Atria, April 2021) is about grief, mental illness, mothers and sons, and so much more. 

Everything is Fine

~WRITERS INTERVIEWING WRITERS |ALWAYS WITH A BOOK~

Memoir Monday: Mental Health Awareness Month

An extraordinarily moving memoir about a family ripped from balance at the hands of a severally mentally ill individual, EVERYTHING IS FINE (Atria, April 2021) is about grief, mental illness, mothers and sons, and so much more. 

I finished this book last night and I am so moved and yet, simultaneously disturbed. It’s one of the most gut-wrenching, heart-breaking, authentic memoirs I’ve read in a long time. This family will stay with me.

Vince Granata recalls standing in front of his suburban home, chalk in hand, as he greeted his mother and father and three siblings (triplets) home from the hospital. The family had just doubled in size. He was ecstatic; finally: playmates, siblings.

But twenty-three years later, one of those siblings–Tim–will develop severe mental illness–likely schizophrenia. He’s plagued by paranoid delusions, an obsession over religion, philosophy, and morality. He talks about suicide and death and how he might not ‘make it’ to the 4th of July…and if he doesn’t, well, then, it’s the ‘demons’ that made him do it.

On a hot July day, at the family’s home, Tim brutally kills their mother. They were alone in the house, things were ‘fine,’ and then…they weren’t. Vince is over a thousand miles away, his father is at work, his sister at the mall shopping for suitable clothing for an upcoming interview. Now, this family is change forever.

Told with great compassion and willpower, Vince Granata takes this very painful experience and weaves it into a narrative that will tug at your heartstrings, but also have you questioning and worried for the ‘system.’ 

The prose is stark, precise, and yet lyrical at times, EVERYTHING IS FINE captures the raw emotion, internal hurdles to overcoming grief, as well as loyalties to one’s mother but also brother, and the rest of the family.

Here, the author takes it upon himself to examine the disease that plagued his brother, reads reams of medical notes, visits him in a criminally insane psychiatric unit, and more. The entire family’s trajectory is thrown off balance, but in the end, it’s a gorgeous tribute to a well-loved mother, a portrait of loss and even, forgiveness.



Please join me in conversation with the Vince Granata:

Leslie Lindsay:

Vince, welcome and thank you for taking the time. I am a daughter of a (late) severally mentally ill mother; I know how deeply personal EVERYTHING IS FINE must have been for you—though I cannot know exactly. Can you tell us what the original impetus was for writing this story? Was there a question you were seeking an answer to…maybe you wanted to understand Tim better…or the [broken] system. Maybe it was something else?

Vince Granata:

Thank you so much for having me for this conversation, Leslie. It means a great deal to me that you’re someone who has also experienced having a loved one with a serious mental illness. While no two stories will be exactly the same, families who have grappled with these illnesses do have much they can share with each other. One of my deepest hopes is that the book reaches others like us.

I didn’t start trying to write about my family’s story until a year after my mother’s death. My first attempt took a different form than the book would eventually take. I envisioned a sort of extended op-ed that would expose the flaws in mental health care that led to my family’s tragedy. To do so, I got a hold of my brother Tim’s medical records from when he was hospitalized a few months before killing our mother. But I was so, so angry then. All I could do was write rage filled notes in the margins of the records, try to find people I could blame for what happened in my family. This was such lazy anger, my attempt to look for easy targets because I couldn’t yet confront all that I didn’t know about my brother’s struggles and the systems of care that couldn’t support him. So that attempt failed. It wasn’t until several months later, thanks in large part to meeting the man who would become my mentor, that I was able to approach my family’s story from another posture, a quieter posture, one of grief. I don’t know if there was a specific question that drove these efforts, but I became much more focused on trying to figure out if there was a way I could ever come to understand my family’s trauma, if there was a way I could live with tremendous grief. So while I definitely still intend for the book to explore systemic issues regarding our broken mental health care system, the bigger driving question pushing a lot of my writing was how can I find a way to survive.   

Photo by Engin Akyurt on Pexels.com

Leslie Lindsay:

I don’t want to downplay the severity of your family’s experience, because it was horrific. Still, I am calmed and validated. Much of your experiences with Tim and your subsequent grief over losing your mother resonated on a visceral level. Many of my mother’s symptoms were similar to Tim’s. The religious constructs he clung to, his insistence on dying on the 4th of July [my mother had a July birthday; that was her ‘target’ date, she also spoke almost rapturously about suicide]. What I think I am getting at: everyone’s story is different, but the experience is the same. Can you talk about that, please?

Vince Granata:

So many more people than I initially imagined have, sadly, experienced similar things with a loved one whose world has bent into terrifying shapes. Nearly every time I’ve read publicly from this book, I’ve had one or several people approach me afterward with their own experiences of trying to reach a loved one struggling with psychosis. It’s deeply upsetting to see someone you care about acting in a way that makes no sense to you or makes them appear entirely different from the person you know them to be. Though I want to avoid generalizing when it comes to describing a complex illness like schizophrenia, psychosis will reach out and grab for whatever language and experience that it can to populate someone’s reality with delusions and hallucinations. So for Tim, someone with a religious background, that kind of spiritual language was most accessible for the disease. And this kind of religious language and imagery can lend itself well to manifesting a reality that seems embroiled in a cosmic struggle, delusions and hallucinations that put the person suffering in the midst of a battle between good and evil or god and the devil. So I absolutely think that the similarities you see here are ones that others may also have witnessed when their loved ones struggle with an illness like schizophrenia.

Photo by Harrison Candlin on Pexels.com

Leslie Lindsay:

Let’s shift to the broken mental health system, the so-called ‘revolving door’ of psychiatric patients. The adage is: “stabilize and evacuate,” everything in a hospitalization like this is ‘toward discharge,’ and yes, that’s the goal, for folks with severe mental illness to accept medical intervention, take their medication, attend therapy, have the medication tweaked as necessary, have productive lives, but it rarely works that way. This is disheartening. We could talk about this forever, but what three things would you say are most important?

Vince Granata:

Whew, we definitely could talk about this forever, and luckily there are people much smarter than I am tirelessly working on some of these steps. I’d encourage anyone interested in addressing this broken system to checkout the work of the Treatment Advocacy Center. What I tried to examine in my book is how our perception—or often, misperception—of serious mental illnesses, like schizophrenia, leads to deeply flawed approaches to treatment. One obvious example is how, quite often, we treat these illnesses like acute trauma and not the chronic conditions that they are. Many many people struggling with schizophrenia don’t receive treatment until they are in crisis, and often these moments of crisis involve an interaction with police, which can be tremendously fraught. People in crisis experiencing psychotic episodes, if they’re lucky, get taken to hospital ERs—places for stabilizing acute trauma—and are, if they meet certain crisis criteria problematically defined based on danger to self or others, granted limited hospital stays where the goal is stabilization. Due to a myriad of factors—critical shortage of psychiatric beds, predatory insurance practices, various legal handcuffs—this type of treatment only provides a temporary life raft. We need to change the paradigm here, and find ways to meaningfully address serious mental illness before people reach these crisis moments. For a much more comprehensive look at how we might begin to approach this problem, I highly encourage people too seek out the publically available short documentary, Before Stage Four: Confronting Early Psychosis. But to try to answer your question, I think the three steps I’d point to are: massive investment in increasing our understanding of serious mental illness through research to correct our misperceptions, radical overhaul of the mental health care system—hospitals, community services, insurance—in a way that increases capacity for sustained treatment of mental illnesses on a long term basis, and a commitment to have difficult conversations about these illnesses that both dismantle insidious stigmas while also contending with the realities of allowing serious illnesses to go untreated. I realize those are all massive, multifaceted steps, but I think they reveal the extent of the crisis we’re in. 

Photo by Bruno Pires on Pexels.com

Leslie Lindsay:

There’s a piece in EVERYTHING IS FINE where you break down the idea of mental health/mental illness and severe mental illness. Can you do that here, because I think there’s a lot of misnomers out there.

Vince Granata:

Absolutely. To get specific with diagnostic language, severe/serious mental illness typically refers to schizophrenia-spectrum disorders, severe bipolar disorder, and severe major depression. To speak more generally, mental illnesses that results in serious functional impairment that limit major life activities. What many (if not most) serious mental illnesses share are psychotic features, the potential for the person with the illness to experience reality-bending psychosis. So while one in four Americans live with a diagnosable mental illness, a much much smaller percentage live with a serious mental illness. And I want to be clear here that I don’t mean to emphasize this distinction to denigrate the very real suffering “non serious” mental illness can incur. For years, I’ve lived with moderate depression, something I’ve been lucky to temper with medication and therapy. Depression sucks. My depression sucks, but I know that it doesn’t rise to the level of serious mental illness, doesn’t threaten to deconstruct my world like an illness that can spawn psychosis. So this distinction matters tremendously when it comes to how we conceive of treating mental illness. Painting with a too broad brush leads to one size fits all “solutions” that aren’t at all adequate for those who are suffering with serious mental illnesses.

Granata’s memoir of profound family tragedy is a monument to the work of remembering…In candid, smoothly unspooling prose, Granata reconstructs life and memory from grief, writing a moving testament to the therapy of art, the power of record, and his immutable love for his family.”

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Leslie Lindsay:

Turning to grief and aftermath, I completely saw myself in your recollections and dreams following your mother’s’ death. After my mother died of suicide, I continuously felt haunted by her presence. She was in my sleep; I didn’t believe she died because I never saw her body. To be honest, I am not really sure what made these feelings go away. It’s been six years. Maybe it isn’t really gone. What do you think helped you?

Vince Granata:

As difficult as this was for me to realize, part of what has helped is accepting that my grief will never fully go away. I remember having this moment, months after my mother died, when I had this terrifying realization, I’m going to think about my mother’s death, in some way, every day, long as I live. And though that’s proved true, it hasn’t been devastating in the way I’d feared it would be. Learning how to live with those daily thoughts, often sharp unpredictable reminders, involves learning to see trauma as only part of my larger life, part of a larger story. Something as innocuous as a reflection of myself wearing glasses can remind me of the glasses my brother Tim wore, how when the local news covered his arraignment the day after he killed our mother their camera lingered on his face while he pushed those glasses—thick dark rims—away from his eyes. Or, I can’t see a middle aged woman crouching to pet a dog and not think of my mother, of missing my mother, of remembering how she died, and while that will always be painful, I feel more in control of those moments when I can place them in the larger structure of my life, a life that holds much more than just her tragic death.

Leslie Lindsay:

I love how you bring in the concept of memory and remembering here. With memoir especially, it’s hard because we think we know what really happened, but often it’s out-of-order, or we’ve projected, because memory is fragmented, it’s incomplete. And also, it’s based on emotion. Can you expand on these concepts?

Vince Granata:

Yes, memory is absolutely based on emotion. Often it’s the feeling around a moment that fills in our memory gaps. And this is a central challenge of memoir, how to account for the space between what our memory convinces us is true and the events as they actually unfolded. First, from a writing perspective, I think it’s essential to call out this challenge! Since there’s no way to offer a definitive exactly-as-it-happened account of an event in the past, the reader needs to know, I think, that you the writer is aware of this reality and is trying to contend with the imperfections of memory actively on the page. Second, and this also gets terribly tricky in memoir, the only perspective on an event the writer can truly offer is their own. Memoir is, by definition, a self-centering form. To be clear, I don’t mean “self-centering” just in terms of its negative connotations. Centering the self can be liberating and empowering and one of the most resonant ways a person can amplify an urgent story that needs to be told. But planting “I” all over the page can also make one person’s account of a shared experience appear definitive, it can make my memory of an event appear definitive even if others experienced that moment differently than I did. And on top of all of that are the complications that trauma brings to our memories, the way trauma can shroud and obscure and distort. Part of what I wanted to do with this book was reclaim memories that I’d felt were tainted by my family’s trauma. Because, as you’ve pointed out, emotions drive memories, so many of my memories became overwhelmingly driven by the sadness and horror my trauma spawned. It became nearly impossible to let happy memories hold space in my mind because so many of those memories felt only like the prelude to tragedy. Overcoming trauma’s hold on my memories took work. And a lot of that work came through writing, in the patience that writing demands. Though there were many other factors that contributed to my healing beyond writing, one thing that writing absolutely gave me was the chance to reconstruct memories that I’d feared trauma had stripped from me.

Photo by Johannes Plenio on Pexels.com

Leslie Lindsay:

Before we go, I think your mom would be so proud of this story. It’s really a testament to brotherly love, forgiveness, and also a tribute to her. What would you like her to know?

Vince Granata:

Thank you. Thank you so much for saying this. And there’s so, so much I want to tell her. Mostly, I want her to know that I’ve survived, that there’s joy in my life today. I want her to know that I see her in that happiness, that I think about her everyday.

Leslie Lindsay:

Vince, thank you for this. I am so grateful for the opportunity to chat about a shared trauma. Is there anything I should have asked, but may have forgotten?

Vince Granata:

Thank you, Leslie. I’m so grateful for the opportunity to think about my work in this way, and deeply appreciative of your thoughtful questions.

Artistic image of book cover designed and photographed by Leslie Lindsay. Follow on Instagram for more like this @leslielindsay1

FOR MORE INFORMATION, TO CONNECT WITH VINCE GRANATA, OR TO PURCHASE A COPY OF EVERYTHING’S FINE, PLEASE VISIT: 

ORDER LINKS:

  • Support your local in-person bookstore or order through Bookshop.org
  • This title may also be available through other online sellers. 
  • See all books in the May 2021 author interview series on Mothers & Mental Illness HERE
  • Upcoming May Memoir Monday/Mental Health/Mothers: Deborah K. Shepherd SO HAPPY TOGETHER (5/5), Maryanne O’Hara/LITTLE MATCHES (5/10), Mary Kubica/LOCAL WOMAN MISSING (5/12), Claire Phillips/A ROOM WITH A DARKER VIEW (5/17), Tori Starling/CRAZY FREE (5/20), and Nicole Bokat/THE HAPPINESS THIEF (5/26). 

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YOU MIGHT LIKE:

I was reminded of HIDDEN VALLEY ROAD by Robert Kolker as I read EVERYTHING IS FINE and also found touches of HE CAME WITH IT (Miriam Feldman) in terms of a young man afflicted with schizophrenia, but also, readers may appreciate Ron Powers’s NO ONE CARES ABOUT CRAZY PEOPLE.

Above authors have been featured on Always with a Book. Please use the search feature to search author/title to read the Q&A

Vince Granata photoABOUT THE AUTHOR: Vince Granata received his BA in history from Yale University and his MFA in creative writing from American University. He has received fellowships and residences from the Bread Loaf Writers Conference, Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, the Ucross Foundation, and MacDowell. His work has appeared in Rolling StoneFourth GenreThe Massachusetts Review, and Connecticut Magazine, and has been listed as Notable in Best American Essays 2018 and Best American Essays 2020

1B6B942E-E2D9-4517-9773-73A6A5162188ABOUT YOUR HOST: 

Leslie Lindsay is the creator and host of the award-winning author interview series,“Always with a Book.” Since 2013, Leslie, named “one of the most influential book reviewers” by Jane Friedman, ranks in the top 1% of all GoodReads reviewers and has conducted over 700 warms, inquisitive conversations with authors as wide-ranging as Robert Kolker and Mary Kubica to Helen Phillips and Mary Beth Keane, making her website a go-to for book lovers world-wide. Her writing & photography have appeared in literary journals and online. She is the award-winning author of SPEAKING OF APRAXIA: A Parents’ Guide to Childhood Apraxia of Speech, soon to be released as an audio book by Penguin Random House. She is represented by Catalyst Literary Management. 

Leslie’s memoir, MODEL HOME: Motherhood, Madness & Memory is currently on-submission. 

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Artistic image of book cover designed and photographed by Leslie Lindsay. Follow on Instagram for more like this @leslielindsay1. Cover and author image courtesy of V. Granata and used with permission.

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