By Leslie Lindsay
What if your mother were blisteringly intelligent and ambitious and yet…she devolved into a stew of paranoia, delusions, and more?
~WRITERS INTERVIEWING WRITERS|ALWAYS WITH A BOOK~
Memoir Monday: Mental Health & Motherhood
This unflinching, insightful, and troubled memoir A ROOM WITH A DARKER VIEW: Chronicles of My Mother and Schizophrenia by Claire Phillips is ambitiously and intelligently told. Claire’s mother, Joy is an Oxford-trained lawyer diagnosed in midlife with paranoid schizophrenia. Here, the author takes a feminist lens and tells her story, recollecting her childhood–and her mother’s–an elegant, non-linear manner, arriving at the dark, and inevitable conclusion.
We get a striking glimpse of Claire’s mother from her younger days, the stress of being one of the only practicing female attorneys at time when it was primarily men, her father’s aspirations and career as a scientist, more. Phillips leads us through dark hallways where portraits of delusional thinking and paranoia hang, like a specter. But it’s more than that: A ROOM WITH A DARKER VIEW touches on the broken mental health system, adult children as a caregivers, mental health homelessness, shame, and the universal worry: could we have done things differently?
A daughter breaks the family silence about her mother’s schizophrenia, reframing hospitalizations, paranoia, illness, and caregiving through a feminist lens.
Claire Phillips writes with a powerful and harrowing hand, describing the generation gap between mother and daughter, but also extended family, touching briefly on the idea of legacy. A ROOM WITH A DARKER VIEW is written in fragments and is not exactly linear, perhaps by design, but reads very organically, with the end unraveling into its perfect cohesion.
Please join me in welcoming the lovely and talented Claire Phillips to the author interview series.
Claire, this story completely undid me. As a daughter whose mother mirrored similar characteristics, I felt completely empathetic to your situation and kept wondering, ‘how is this going to end?’ Without going into those specifics—unless you want to—what was the driving force in writing A ROOM WITH A DARKER VIEW?
Thank you for your very attentive read. A parent whose mental health is not being treated or whose care is not always supported by the medical profession or community can be a deeply sorrowful experience. You don’t want a family member to suffer unnecessarily and by extension you do as well. This is something I thought about a lot when my mother endured her final relapse due to a mix up on the part of a potentially overworked CVS pharmacist. She received the wrong dose of her Seroquel, an effective second-generation antipsychotic, which completely destabilized her. My brother repeatedly warned me that a single missed dose might be all that it would take to induce a relapse, and this was pretty much all that it took. A strong bout of psychosis was the inevitable result.
As you know from reading the book, we were running out of Medicare days to support our mother’s psychiatric needs, and were worried that we would not have enough left to support a subsequent relapse. At my suggestion, my brother and I decided to care for Mom at home once we discovered the discrepancy in medication dosage. It was pure folly. We weren’t able to manage her care for a host of reasons.
Nevertheless she was a bright woman who wanted to do right by her children. She didn’t want to insist that we might be wrong, and tried her best to get better at home on her couch. It didn’t work. In most cases it won’t.
So the driving force in writing this book was a giant, “No More.” I couldn’t live with politely enduring the disappointment of the medical care available to my mother any longer. Growing up in the 80s I was encouraged to bury the uncomfortable details of our familial past. In 2013 it no longer made sense to do this when my every waking moment not in the classroom or driving endless stretches of hot gridlocked So Cal freeways was more or less dictated by the concerns of a family member coping with a chronic illness. I also felt compelled to take note of the process of her recovery. I had rarely partaken in her psychiatric care growing up, and finally I felt stable enough emotionally and workwise to pitch in. From the time he was eleven, my brother had done the bulk share of this traditionally female work. Initially, I had a large file in which I would add daily illustrative details titled: Mom’s Recovery Notes. I expected and needed this outcome. It was sadly not to be.
I had to laugh because there was a scene where you’re with your mother and she says, “You’re not writing about me, are you?” You tell her no, but you were. And she knew it. A similar thing happened with my mother. She always encouraged my writing. I don’t think she’d be supportive of me laying bare her struggles. Here’s how I rationalize it: my sharing my story, it might help someone else. How do you look at it?
If your darkest moments bring relief to anyone else that is a wonderful gift. You feel so much less alone and that in and of itself makes the writing worthwhile. The writing life presents numerous challenges. You can honor those you know with a complex portrait, or unfairly bludgeon these intimates depending upon your aim. When the person you choose to write about is no longer among the living, invariably you have the last word. Still the project is wider. You might ask yourself, who might benefit from the telling of this illness narrative, and why? Which symptoms or early signs might be worthy of investigation so that similar mistakes are avoided. I was always somewhat disappointed that my mother didn’t chose to get medical help in order to protect her children from her mania and paranoid accusations. What I discovered though by writing this book was that treatments were mostly cruel and unhelpful prior to the advent of first-generation antipsychotics in the late 50s. My mother might have feared being abused in a psychiatric hospital situation. From this perspective I gained some much needed peace.
Your mother was very intelligent and ambitious. If someone told her no, she wanted to do it more. You talk about this sort of obliquely in A ROOM WITH A DARKER VIEW. She was determined to practice law, even though, at the time it was primarily a white male thing. It certainly wasn’t for Jewish women. But she insisted. I think that speaks to her dogged personality, but also it sets her up for a great deal of stress, which ultimately, perhaps lead to her breakdown. What do you make of that?
This is a compelling question because it speaks to the confusion surrounding my mother’s illness. Without knowing her mental health history – a first break down in college during finals – it was easy for me to view her “break” from reality as a reaction to gender inequality in the work place, and to the trauma experienced by “ethnic” immigrants who don’t always “fit in.” Growing up, this was the lens through which I viewed my mother. I didn’t have access to much background on schizophrenia and/or mental illness. But knowing what I know now, I believe her illness was brought on by an organic neurological or biological illness. Her breakdown at 21 while sitting for finals at Oxford and her breakdown at 73 were both accompanied by the same symptoms: imaginary foul odors, an obsession with being unclean, and the terror of being shadowed by strangers. Many people have suffered economic and social injustice but do not experience psychosis. Or study vigorously without achieving their prized aims but do not “breakdown” so to speak.
The antipsychiatry movement of the 60s and 70s focused on social inequality as the dominant cause of mental health disorders, along with dysfunctional families. It was difficult, I think, for Laing and others to see that sexism and miserable parenting were perhaps endemic to working and middle class family life in England. The fact that the person in the family experiencing the mental health illness was being bullied by family members, in addition to suffering from an untreated illness is tragic, but a separate thread in the family narrative.
My mother was exceptionally capable despite her illness. She was driven. She did not want her illness to define or her limit her.
“A moving portrait of her mother and their relationship, A Room with a Darker View is a book that people who are going through something similar need to read. Mental illness is a story, like everyone’s life is a story…. Many people don’t want to talk about death or illness, they want to talk about the heroics. But I think some of the heroics are just telling these stories. In this book, Phillips’ mother has a full life.”
– Emily Rapp Black, author of The Still Point of a Turning World
For what it’s worth, there’s a good deal of literature—and science—suggesting that a psychotic episode is built up when an individual simply cannot take the pressure any longer. For example, my mother’s situation is that she came from a deeply troubled and traumatic childhood, a promiscuous teen life, drugs, and was a chronic liar. Her interior decorating business was folding, she had a toddler—my sister (I was 10), and the marriage was floundering. It all came to a head. What do you think it was for your mother that really tipped the scales? Also, you touch briefly on a family history of schizophrenia (same here) can you expand?
Most nonfiction literature now, including the recent bestseller Hidden Valley Road takes the view that schizophrenia is very often inherited and most likely biological. The nature versus nurture argument has definitely tipped over to the side of nature. However schizophrenia is a fairly elastic term, one that might not signify the same neurological or genetic origin, but is still a necessary one in view of getting people medical help.
My mother’s illness was not so much the effect of her late career start so much as the effect of an untreated illness. Classic casebook symptoms made the argument for me: the senseless laughter, hallucinations, the delusions, and the eventual succumbing to Capgras Syndrome. The more my mother worked the more manic she became, and then the less she slept, resulting in the intensifying of her symptoms. Schizophrenia without treatment is like a runaway train. The sooner the brakes are put on, the better.
I do think some people come “undone” by unjust or insupportable circumstances, or experience drug related psychosis. Shadrack in Toni Morrison’s novel Sula strikes me as one such character, and serves as the town’s shadow conscience.
Going back a bit, to your grandfather, your mother’s father. He made a comment to your young father (who was engaged at the time to your mother), when your mother had an episode while studying for final exams at college. He said,
“This will never happen again. She’s just stressed.”
My father, like yours, heard similar things. He felt ‘taken.’ Why do you think the severity of this was denied? Is it fear? Responsibility? Something else?
I imagine my grandfather hoped my mother would not struggle with a severe mental illness. At the time of my mother’s first “break”, the girls at Oxford were on extreme fad diets. Grandpa Mike wanted to believe that the stress of exams and being undernourished was what precipitated her breakdown. A doctor, Mike Gelfand may have also known about the poor outcomes associated with prior treatments: ECT, lobotomies, and the insulin cure. He wanted to believe my mother had a fighting chance at a full life. She recovered completely at the time after he assisted in terminating the ECT treatments, so it was believed.
It’s interesting that your father, too, felt “taken.” My father was in his early twenties when he married my mother. I am sure the prevailing view at the time was that women should be well equipped to care for their partners and children. However there are other stories, one in which partners support a partner with diagnosed with mental illness, women with powerful agency. I see this all the time. Better treatment and less stigma surrounding these illnesses has really helped.
Speaking of responsibility, I am struck by how dedicated and supportive you and your brother, John, were of your mother’s mental illness. It truly is a chronic problem, and after your parents’ divorce, you were there, helping, caretaking. My mother drove everyone away; we were estranged. Can you talk a little about your role?
I’m sorry your mother’s illness robbed her of the support and care of her family. That said, I had a distanced relationship with my mother, something I have come to regret. In our family it was my brother who weathered the most in order to get our mother help. He withstood so much. My brother and mother had a very close bond. She adored him in a way that was in sharp contrast to her feelings for me.
In my forties I was able to step up when my brother had less time to care for her, due to professional and familial responsibilities. It was staggering to me just how much fighting with our mother’s insurance company was required to get her care, and just how little help Medicare was.
Once I had experienced the daunting number of months it took for my mother to recover from a prolonged period of psychosis, how many different drugs she had to try, and how many facilities were involved, I became stricken at how little support exists for working people to recover from any serious bout of mental illness. That the L.A. County Jail is the primary provider of mental health care in the region is the unhappy outcome of a system that is failing everyone, rich or poor. I’ve heard very unfortunate stories about the County resources.
Mental health and illness have come a long way, but there are miles to go. I think writing and reading and continuing such important dialogue about the issue is key, but there’s probably more. What do you hope to see in the future?
People are not getting the mental health care they need. As I mentioned, our prisons are full with people having mental health care disorders, who simply don’t belong there. Medical apartheid is real. As a white woman from the suburbs, my mother faired reasonably well considering how dangerous it is for BIPOC to rely on the police to help with a mental health crisis. 911 calls were basically our only means for getting our mother treatment whenever there was a mishap with her medication. Only once did she drive herself to the psychiatric hospital. Luckily, she received good care.
I never asked my mother what it was like to be hauled off by the police, if they used restraints on her, or anything else. I was ashamed of having called the police and of not being able to care for her myself. What kind of fear did she experience when the police knocked at her door? Who did she believe was there? What persuaded her to open her door? I will never know.
Treatments are better now than when my mother experienced her first “break” but of course, there is still much need for advanced treatment where side effects are not so debilitating. And caregivers must be supported financially to be there for family members. CA gives family caregivers $700 a month to care for an ailing family member, if I have that correct. That’s not nearly enough. Had my mother not received alimony, however modest a sum, or been the beneficiary of occasional family assistance and low-income housing she would have ended up a statistic.
Claire, this has been so validating and important. I am so grateful for this conversation. We could talk for hours, I know. Is there anything I should have asked, but may have forgotten? Or, maybe something you’d like to ask me?
Your attention to this material is so thoughtful. Thank you, Leslie!! I might just ask if your mother ever had the opportunity to get treatment? Was it successful? Could she have benefited from drug rehabilitation sooner? I impressed at how many works on this subject you have been able to read and review, especially being impacted so personally by a parent battling with an untreated illness.
This is a compelling question and one I am not sure I can fully answer only because I was a kid (or not yet born) when most of this was going on. My mother became addicted to drugs as a teenager, at a time in our culture where she felt it was ‘the norm.’ Many people grew up in the 1960s and 1970s and were not addicted to drugs, so I am not sure about her assertion. She continued the abuse of ‘softer’ drugs in secret throughout her marriage–‘uppers,’ diet pills, pot. They blossomed into harder drugs, which maybe my father knew about, maybe not. I believe they were only small sampling of her overall ‘problem,’ and I wonder if maybe she was self-medicating, although poorly. Some intervention then may have helped, I don’t know. My mother was hospitalized multiple times from the time she was about 30 years old until her death, in her late 50s. She certainly had opportunities. There was a time when she was very balanced and stable, receiving therapy and on a medication regimen that seemed to help. Ultimately, sadly, she just couldn’t sustain the psychiatric toll her illness created. She was isolated in many way because she drove others away. I fully believe my mother could have been a wonderful, fully functioning member of society–she was wildly artistic and creative and bright–had she taken care of these things–but it would have required a good deal of discipline, behavior modification, and a very supportive network.
As far as reading goes, I just can’t help myself! I am a former child/adolescent R.N. and also I lived through the harrowing experience of my mother’s psychosis, her suicide, and my subsequent complex grief. It’s validating–and empowering–to learn more about others’ experiences. The more I know, thhe better I am to understand, empathize, and support. It’s a passion.
Artistic photo of book cover designed and photographed by L.Lindsay. Follow on Instagram @leslielindsay1 #alwayswithabook #amreading
For more information, to connect with Claire Phillips, or to purchase a copy of A ROOM WITH A DARKER VIEW, please visit:
- Doppelhouse Press
- 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 Motherhood/Mental Health/Illness HERE.
- You might appreciate this piece, “A Reading List of Memoirs on Motherhood & Mental Illness,” with a focus on memoir. Most of these books can be found HERE.
- Also, 12 Raw and Moving Mental Health Memoirs Everyone Should Read.
YOU MIGHT LIKE:
I was reminded, in part, of HE CAME WITH IT (Miriam Feldman), a mother’s journey with her schizophrenic son, but also WHAT WE CARRY (Maya Shanbhag Lang) in terms of caregiving parents, with touches of Vince Granata’s EVERYTHING’S FINE.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Claire Phillips is the author of the novella Black Market Babies and recipient of the American Academy of Poets, First Prize. Her writing has appeared in Black Clock magazine, Los Angeles Review of Books, and MotherBoard-Vice, among other places. She was nominated for the Pushcart Prize and given a notable mention in The Best American Essays 2015. She teaches writing at CalArts, the Southern California Institute for Architecture (SCI-Arc), University of California, Irvine, and is Director of the Los Angeles Writers Reading Series at Glendale College. She holds a M.A. in Creative Writing from New York University, and a B.A. in English from San Francisco State University. Author photo credit: Monica Nouwens
ABOUT 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 & Writer’s House.
Leslie’s memoir, MODEL HOME: Motherhood, Madness & Memory is currently on-submission.
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Cover, author image, and personal author-mother photo courtesy of publisher and used with permission. Author photo credit: Monica Nouwens. Artistic photo of book cover designed and photographed by L.Lindsay. Follow on Instagram @leslielindsay1 #alwayswithabook #amreading