By Leslie Lindsay
A moving and richly researched blend of history, memoir, and current affairs regarding mental health in America.
First, the accolades:
Written by a New York Times bestselling author and Pulitzer prize winning journalist, NO ONE CARES ABOUT CRAZY PEOPLE (Hachette hardcover, 2017; now available in paperback) is a finalist for the PEN/E. O. Wilson Literary Science Writing Award.
…It’s a Washington Post Notable Book of the Year.
People Magazine and Shelf Awareness have both called it the Best Book of the Year.
The New York Times Book Review says this of NO ONE CARES ABOUT CRAZY PEOPLE:
“Extraordinary and courageous . . . No doubt if everyone were to read this book, the world would change.”
NO ONE CARES ABOUT CRAZY PEOPLE has been on my TBR pile, embarrassingly, for over a year. Is that because I don’t care about crazy people? On the contrary. Perhaps I care a little too much. Mental illness runs in my family. Not just in my mother who died by suicide a few years back, but other family members as well. I’m also a former child/adolescent psychiatric R.N., so to say I don’t care about ‘crazy’ people, would be wrong. I do.
When I started thinking about my author line-up for May, I knew I wanted to focus on motherhood, for obvious reasons, but also, I had personal reasons.
May is likely the month my mother took her last breath. We were estranged at the time; in fact, she had driven away many family members then, too. It’s suspected she died, fittingly, on Memorial Day.
So I reached out to Ron Powers. He’s obviously not a mother, but a loving father of two adult sons who have battled schizophrenia. Immediately I was taken with his charm and our similarities. Like me, Ron grew up in Missouri. We both attended the same university. Though different years and entirely different campuses. He worked at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch for a time; that’s where I grew up. He worked for the Chicago Tribune; I live in the Windy City now.
And we’ve both been touched by mental illness.
We started exchanging emails. His wife’s mother is from the County Mayo. Had I been? Yes! Do my redheaded daughters Irish dance? At least one does. And when we started correcting each other’s lapses in memory, my husband joked that we were made for each other.
But something tells me he has eyes only for his lovely wife, Honoree.
I adored getting to know the Powers family. From their early days in New York City to time spent at the Bread Loaf Conference in Vermont, to Kevin’s acceptance to Interlochen Arts Academy in Michigan, and Dean’s lyrical poetry and astute childhood observations. Plus, Honoree is one smart cookie, holding a PhD in biochemistry from the University of Chicago.
Powers is a loving husband and father and tireless mental health advocate. I’m honored to welcome him to the author interview series.
Leslie Lindsay: Ron, it’s a pleasure. Thank you. First, you say this is the book you worked for nearly a decade *not* to write. You promised yourself, your wife. You weren’t going to do it. So why this book, why now?
Ron Powers: A legitimate question. The answer is that I eventually realized that I could not not write it.
I hesitated for several years because I did not want to revisit the pain of Kevin’s death, and because I was wary of my own motives should I find the strength to plunge in. I did not want to debase the memory of Kevin, who took his life in our Middlebury, VT, household in 2005, a week before his twenty-first birthday. As you know, Kevin had battled a severe affliction of schizophrenia and then schizoaffective disorder for three years before the voices in his head told him to end it.
Nor did I want to tarnish the dignity and courage of his older brother Dean, who was (unbelievably) stricken by the same horrible disease a few years later. Dean has survived and has even managed to stabilize himself via a regimen of antipsychotic medications. He is one of the most gallant and courageous people I have ever known.
I was wary of several mistakes that authors of such books have made. I did not want to commodify Kevin and Dean—to exploit their terrible suffering as a means of making money. Nor did I want to violate the privacy of these two beloved kids, and their mother, my wife Honoree. And of course I dreaded the prospect of delving into memories, photographs, emails, and other memorabilia of these two glorious boys who had been so dear to my wife and me.
I explain in the book why I changed my mind: I came to realize that writing the book was a kind of dharma, a sacred duty. Schizophrenia and its allied brain diseases–schizoaffective and bipolar disorders—remain mysterious afflictions to most people. Their victims are shunned, marginalized, and far too often thrown into jails and prisons under the mistaken belief that they are criminals. Yet these afflictions are not simply symptoms of unhappiness, alienation, depression. They are brain diseases, passed along genetically. Those who are stricken lose contact with rational thought. They need to be stabilized and protected, not punished.
L.L.: NO ONE CARES ABOUT CRAZY PEOPLE is a tough read.
Ron Powers: Thank you. Sincerely.
L.L.: It’s academically rigorous, alternating chapters of non-fiction narrative in history, current affairs/politics, and medicine with those of your personal (often emotional) experiences with Kevin and Dean’s schizophrenia. I personally loved this back-and-forth structure. I heard somewhere that you didn’t want to include Kevin and Dean in the book, but there they are. Can you tell us how this structure developed? And also the research that went into this book?
Ron Powers: As I said, I wanted to protect the integrity, the sacredness, of my sons, and I wanted to shield myself from the torture of revisiting the past.
I actually wrote a proposal for the book that did not include my family: it was to be a straight research and reportorial history of madness and how society has dealt with it from the awful era of Bethlem (Bedlam) Asylum in London seven hundred years ago through time present.
My publisher, Hachette, accepted this proposal. Only then did the editors, along with my magnificent literary agent Jim Hornfischer, take me aside to persuade me that it would be a literary and a moral error to exclude the very experiences that had led me to propose this book. At that point, I saw that they were exactly right. And so I expanded the book’s thematic scope to embrace the personal. I am glad I did.
In doing so, I discovered that Kevin and Dean had an important, legitimate function in my narrative. They became the reader’s emissaries from the bright world of the normal into the dark hell of serious mental illness.
When I realized that, I no longer dreaded scouring through the artifacts of their lives—our lives. When I finally dared to retrieve the boxes of their emails and photos and recordings and drawings, I experienced the unexpected joy of re-entering an enchanted realm: the realm of their happy boyhoods, the happiest twenty years of all our lives. This experience led me to re-savor their sunlit personalities and to record their descent into madness with respect and a sense of rightness: Dean and Kevin were living again, for the benefit of all the victims and their families.
L.L.: There’s a passage in NO ONE CARES about the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference that I love:
“None of us had quite overcome the rustic spell cast by the nineteenth-century campus with its right-angled yellow wood-framed Inn and dormitory buildings, all clustered in a mountain meadow and cordoned off from the world by pine forests and the Green Mountains rising behind them.”
Everything seemed pretty ideal. I bring this up because not all who are afflicted with mental illness had such an ideal childhood. What do you make of that?
Ron Powers: You have put your finger on the central argument of my book, Leslie. In fact, ideal or non-ideal childhoods have little to do—necessarily—with the onset of schizophrenia. It’s a rare disease, and still a fairly mysterious one. It strikes only three to four percent of the population. (Well, that really isn’t so rare, is it?)
To oversimplify, it’s the result of a cocktail of flawed genes, inherited in the bloodline. Even people who carry this toxic cocktail do not always succumb to the symptoms.
Here is the mysterious part: the cocktail must be stimulated to its destructive effects by outside, or environmental factors.
The most potent of these is stress: extreme emotional stress suffered in childhood or early adolescence. So, yes, the lack of an “ideal” childhood can be a factor. Our elder son Dean suffered extreme stress as the result of a car accident, with him at the wheel, when he was 16. (This is a typical age of onset, if the flawed cocktail is in place). [The crash] severely injured a 14-year-old girl in the passenger seat. Dean was wracked by guilt and by the fury of the girl’s parents, who pressured the court to have him jailed for six years. This didn’t happen, but the agony of the possibility consumed our son.
Dean’s younger brother Kevin experienced no such psychic oppression. He was a sunny, happy child whose musical gifts—on the guitar—were evident from age 5. Yet Kevin’s affliction was far more severe than Dean’s, and led him to take his life. So, yes, schizophrenia remains largely a malign mystery.
L.L.: You outline some stressors/triggers/prodromal stages to the possible development of schizophrenia, not just in Kevin and Dean’s cases, but across the board for those who are afflicted with diseases of psychosis. This has all been supported by research.
They are: 1) Stress 2) Exhaustion/lack of sleep 3) Substance abuse and 4) family history/genetics.
You mention almost all of these within the narrative, expect—and I could have missed it—family history. Can you touch on this, please?
Ron Powers: I’m not sure that substance abuse is a trigger for schizophrenia. It can certainly worsen the symptoms for those who are vulnerable. As I said earlier—and I should make clear that I claim no expertise in this exasperating mystery of the brain—that “family history” is an important indicator. But I hasten to add that neither I nor my wife Honoree has experienced symptoms of serious mental illness. Each of us, however, had parents who may very well have been undiagnosed sufferer of schizophremia or bipolar disorder. If this is true, the flawed genes clearly skipped a generation. Please bear in mind that I’m speaking as a writer who has researched the subject extensively, but not as an expert in neuroscience.
L.L.: Tragically, horribly, your youngest son, Kevin succumbed to his illness when he died by suicide in 2005, just a week before his twenty-first birthday. How did you make it through? What advice would you give to others in the wake of a family member’s suicide?
Ron Powers: This is a hard yet legitimate question, and I want to answer it without any taint of sentimentality or pretended expertise. As I write on the first page of “NO ONE CARES ABOUT CRAZY PEOPLE:
“Over the second five years [following Kevin’s death], the infernal process of ‘healing’—adaptation, really—had begun its unwelcome sterilizing work.”
We adapt—if we are lucky. If we are not lucky, or if we lack strong loving connections to others, we may succumb to lifelong depression and regret. Honoree and I—and our dear son Dean—are a family deeply bound by love. We regret Kevin’s loss deeply. To this day, I dream of him several times a week. The recurring dream is not that he has died, but that he has stopped playing his guitar and stubbornly refuses to take it up again. I don’t think I need to spell out the symbolism of that motif.
My advice to others? I guess it would be to cherish the best memories of the lost loved one’s life, to bear in mind the awful necessary truth that life is suffering, and to recall the words of the poet John Donne that have resounded through the centuries:
“Death, be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so;
For those whom thou think’st thou dost overthrow
Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me. . . “
For more information, to connect with the author via social media, or to purchase a copy of NO ONE CARES ABOUT CRAZY PEOPLE, please see:
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Ron Powers, a Pulitzer Prize-winning and Emmy Award-winning writer and critic, has studied and written about Mark Twain for many years. His works include White Town Drowsing: Journeys to Hannibal, Dangerous Water: A Biography of the Boy Who Became Mark Twain, and the coauthor of two, including the #1 New York Times bestseller Flags of Our Fathers.
He won the 1973 Pulitzer Prize for Criticism for his critical writing about television during 1972. In addition to writing, Powers has taught for the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, the Salzburg Seminar in Salzburg, Austria, and at Middlebury College in Middlebury, Vermont. Powers is married and has two sons. He currently resides in Castleton, Vermont.
You can connect with me, Leslie Lindsay, via these websites:
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“Very readable and highly recommend.”
~E. Fuller Torrey, MD and author of SURVIVING SCHIZOPHRENIA
[Cover image courtesy of R. Powers and used with permission. Other images retrieved from this NPR article, on 5.21.18]