Pulitzer Prize-winning Journalist Ron Powers on his illuminating title, NO ONE CARES ABOUT CRAZY PEOPLE

By Leslie Lindsay 

A moving and richly researched blend of history, memoir, and current affairs regarding mental health in America. 

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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.

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Photo by Negative Space on Pexels.com

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 disordersremain 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.

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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.

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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.

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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: 

Order Links:

ron-powers_sarah-junek-05723fee640df64c0c066a69b10a2326d59b2406-s700-c85ABOUT 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 HannibalDangerous 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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#KeepTalkingMH #MentalHealthAwareness 

“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]

WeekEND Reading: Gayle Brandeis talks about her new memoir, THE ART OF MISDIAGNOSIS, her mother’s suicide, the juxtaposition of life and death, mental illness, STRANGER THINGS 2, books she’s reading, and so much more

By Leslie Lindsay 

Razor-sharp, raw, poetic memoir about mothers and daughters, suicide, mental illness, and grief.

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Gayle Brandeis’s mother disappeared shortly after Gayle gave birth to her youngest child, Asher. Several days later, her body was found hanging in the utility closet of parking garage of an apartment building for the elderly.

THE ART OF MISDIAGNOSIS is a gorgeous read about a less-glamorous time. Gayle is struggling with grief and heartache, as well as the soupy surreal time of postpartum. Gayle takes this dichotomy of death and birth and weaves it into a coherent, poetic narrative that brings readers into the grief experience.

What’s more is the family history surrounding a series of bizarre medical symptoms that often masked themselves as psychoses. Or was it psychosis, after all? It’s hard to say because the symptoms tend to overlap: delusions, paranoia, factitious disordersfactitious disorders; Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, porphyria. For the last few years of Gayle’s mother’s life, she was working on a documentary about these
disorders, called THE ART OF MISDIAGNOSIS. Gayle takes that script and braids it, along with her own feelings and experiences into the narrative. images (23)

Be sure to watch the stunning book trailer here: 

I found the writing clear and glittery, the medical mystery fascinating, but most of all–I wondered, what really happened?

From the back cover: 

“Written by a gifted stylist, THE ART OF MISDIAGNOSIS delves into the tangled mysteries of the disease, mental illness, and suicide, and comes out the other side with grace.”

I am so, so honored to welcome Gayle to the blog couch.

Leslie Lindsay: Gayle, I find your story so important and so honest and I thank you for sharing it with us. Like you, I had a tumultuous relationship with my mother. Like you, I lost her to suicide a little over two years ago. I dont have to ask what was haunting you when you set out to write THE ART OF MISDIAGNOSIS; I know. But I am curious about what kept you going with the writing?

Gayle Brandeis: Thank you so much, Leslie—I’m so grateful for your kind words and so happy to appear on your blog. I’m sorry that you are part of this suicide loss survivor club, too—it’s not a community I’d wish on anyone, but I very much appreciate connecting with other survivors. Our stories are so often kept in the shadows, and I think when we share this complicated form of grief, we can help reduce stigma, help release shame. That was part of what drove me, but what drove me on a more personal level was the compulsion to dig and dig and dig until I could come to some place of understanding—or, if not understanding, at least a place of greater peace—with my mom, her life as well as her death. I wanted to make some kind of sense out of the chaos.

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L.L.: While THE ART OF MISDIAGNOSIS is as much about death as it is birth. Your youngest son, Asher was born just a week before your mother took her life. You share several beautiful passages in the narrative about Asher/Ashes/Ash/er/es []  its very poignant and also a nod to grief; I think we often grasp at small connections as our mind absorbs loss. We want to make sense of the tragedy.  You also share a really strong image of your sister carrying your mothers ashes in one hand and Asher in his car seat in another arm. Can you talk about the juxtaposition of life and death?

Gayle Brandeis: Life and death are always around us, of course—cue “The Circle of Life” music!—but losing my mom a week after giving birth drove that home in such an intense way. That moment where my sister was walking down the hall holding my baby Asher at the same times he was holding our mom’s ashes, embodies that juxtaposition so perfectly for me, the beginning and end of life in her hands (and realizing those two words—Asher, Ashes—are just one letter apart; just one breath apart, as I write in the book). Having a new baby kept me from running off the rails, I think—I’m so grateful he brought his ray of light to ground us and bring joy through that painful time. I’m very glad I took notes as it was all happening because both grief and giving birth can give one a kind of amnesia—some part of me must have known that, and took notes to guard against this double whammy. Those notes helped greatly once I was ready to write this story—they brought me right back to the intensity of the experience, of holding the reverberations of grief and birth in my body all at once.

L.L.: Shifting gears a bit to the medical side of THE ART OF MISDIAGNOSISyour mother believed she (and  your family) suffered from a couple of rare medical syndromes: Ehlers-Danlos syndrome and also porphyria. Later, theres mention of factitious disorder and malingering syndrome. You had me Googling all kinds of things! Can you break down what you understand about these illnesses, please?

Gayle Brandeis: I feel like I still don’t understand as much about Ehlers-Dalos syndrome and porphryria as my mom had wanted me to. Both are genetic disorders; Ehlers-Danlos is a connective tissue disorder which has a several manifestations—the most common seem to be the hyper mobility type, in which joints are extra loose, and the vascular type, which affects blood vessels (as well as other parts of the body) and can lead to issues like rupture of the aorta (my mom felt certain that this type ran in the family). Just in the last couple of years, several people I know have been diagnosed with EDS, or a family member has, or it’s been suspected by doctors, so it’s possible that my mom was right when she believed it’s not a rare disease, just rarely diagnosed. Porphyria is a metabolic disorder that has all sorts of physical and mental presentations, including some pretty wild ones, like a thirst for blood and “werewolfism”; it may be what drove King George “mad” (and thus helped America become America.) There is something kind of mythic about it, although of course it leads to very real suffering. As I mention in the book, I was kind of disappointed when it turned out I didn’t have porphyria, after all—if I had to be chronically ill (and of course I would rather not be!), that was an interesting illness to be associated with.

Factitious disorders were a more recent discovery for me. In the book, as you know, I talk about how I prolonged my illness for a year after it went into remission when I was a teenager because I didn’t know how not to be “the sick girl”—it had become my identity. A few years ago, a friend mentioned the word “malingering” and I knew I had heard it but didn’t fully understand what it meant; when I looked it up and discovered that it meant gaining some sort of reward from pretending to be ill, I thought, well, that’s what I was doing as a teenager. I later learned, though, that those who malinger get some sort of material benefit from their charade—money, etc.—but those with factitious disorders get their reward directly from the experience of being ill and the attention it inspires. That struck home all the more. The most serious form of this is Munchausen syndrome (named for Baron von Munchausen, a character who made up outlandish tales); there’s also Munchausen by proxy, in which a person, often a mother, will make someone else, often their child, ill through a variety of means. My mom didn’t have Munchausen by proxy, but our relationship as “the sick girl” and “the mother of the sick girl” was definitely an unhealthy and co-dependent one.

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L.L.: And yet, and yet…at times your mother seemed to suffer from some kind of mental illness. As I read, several diagnoses came to mind: schizoaffective disorder, bipolar, narcissism. What do you think was really going on?

Gayle Brandeis: It is still wild and ironic to me that I went out of my way to appear ill when I wasn’t and she refused to acknowledge she had mental illness when she did. After doing my own research and interviewing psychiatrists, it seems likely that she had a paranoid delusional disorder, which is different from schizophrenia and is apparently incredibly hard to treat. Even if she had ever been properly diagnosed, it’s unlikely there would have been a medication or other therapy that could have significantly  helped. Learning this was a relief in a way—I had been beating myself up, wondering what I could have done differently, how I could have helped her more, and when a psychiatrist I interviewed said there really isn’t anything I could have done, it helped me let go of some of the guilt I had been carrying. I do think she had narcissistic personality disorder, as well—the world very much revolved around her.

L.L.: THE ART OF MISDIAGNOSIS teeters between time periods and also is told, in part, by letters you wrote to your mother after her death at the urging of your therapist. There are a million ways you could have structured this narrative. How is that you decided on this structure?

Gayle Brandeis: The structure evolved as I worked on the book. The letter my therapist suggested I write to my mom was something I truly had started writing for myself alone, and as I delved into my history with my mom, at some point I realized that this letter could provide a deeper context for our relationship in the book, since the present tense narration around her suicide was urgent and immediate and didn’t really allow for that kind of reflection. The film transcription came in a bit later in the process—I had decided to borrow my mom’s title but I hadn’t considered using the film itself in the memoir, mostly because I hadn’t been ready to watch it after her death. Once I did let myself view it, I realized that braiding the film into the book could give my mom a chance to speak for herself on the page. And the research elements came in naturally, too—they were part of my investigation and it made sense to weave them in. It seems fitting that the story ended up being told in a complicated, fragmented way—it mirrors how complicated grief after suicide can be (but it also allowed me to create form out of chaos in a very satisfying way.)

L.L.: There are other memoirs about mental illness and suicide; mothers and daughters, but this one is illuminating and uplifting in some regards; redeeming in others. What do you think sets THE ART OF MISDIAGNOSIS apart? What do you hope readers take away? And did it transform you in writing it?

Gayle Brandeis: Of course every story of suicide is unique because of the voice and vision of the person writing, but there are also important points of connection between our stories. I take a dance class called “Groove” where the guiding principle
is “unified but unique”—you are given a few simple movements to do with each song that are touchstones for everyone in the class, but then you make the movements your own, layer on your own quirky stuff. I think of my book that way—I hope people who have gone through similar experiences will find a sense of solidarity and community, that it will help them feel less alone, but I also hope that this book will offer something new—a fresh approach to form, a singular experience told through my very particular (and sometimes peculiar, as was said in a review, which I love) body and mind. I very much hope readers leave the book with a sense of hope (and perhaps some inspiration to tell their own stories.)

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Writing this book transformed me more than I could ever say. I was asked to do a self-interview for The Nervous Breakdown, and I ended up asking myself “How did writing this book change you?” eleven times, with eleven different answers, and I could have kept going. I am a different person than I was when I began writing the book—a stronger person, a braver person, a more open person. I am so deeply grateful for the journey of this book.

L.L.: Gayle, its been such a pleasure. Thank you! Is there anything I forgot to ask that I should have? Like, maybe whats on your end-of-the-year-bucket list, what are you reading, what your guilty pleasures are, or how Asher is doing?

Gayle Brandeis: Thank you so much for having me—this has been a treat! I don’t think you forgot anything at all, but I’m happy to answer these questions! Not sure I have an end-of-the year bucket list, but I do want to see the Northern Lights before I
die.
  Speaking of death, I’m reading a book that comes out next year, I AM, I AM, I AM: Seventeen Brushes with Death by Maggie O’Farrell, which is a beautiful exploration of how awareness of death can help us appreciate life all the more deeply. As for guilty pleasures, hmmm…I gobbled down Stranger Things 2, but I don’t feel guilty about that at all! Hot baths are perhaps my guiltiest pleasure—guilty because I don’t like to waste water, but I sure do love a good, long, hot soak. And Asher’s doing great! It’s kind of amazing to me that he’s 8 now—he is such a barometer of how long I’ve lived without my mom. He’s just about as tall as my armpits these days. Time is so weird. Thanks for asking about my sweet boy (and thanks for all of your other great questions—so very grateful!)29906170001_4871960491001_4871918106001-vs

For more information, to connect with Gayle via social media, or to purchase a copy of THE ART OF MISDIAGNOSIS, please see:

Gayle_Brandeis_by_Rachael WareckiABOUT THE AUTHOR: Gayle Brandeis is the author, most recently, of the memoir The Art of Misdiagnosis: Surviving My Mother’s Suicide (Beacon Press) and the poetry collection The Selfless Bliss of the Body (Finishing Line Books). Her other books include Fruitflesh: Seeds of Inspiration for Women Who Write (HarperOne), and the novels The Book of Dead Birds (HarperCollins), which won the Bellwether Prize for Fiction of Social Engagement, Self Storage (Ballantine), Delta Girls (Ballantine), and My Life with the Lincolns (Henry Holt), which received a Silver Nautilus Book Award and was chosen as a state-wide read in Wisconsin. Her poetry, essays, and short fiction have been widely published and have received numerous honors, including a Barbara Mandigo Kelly Peace Poetry Award and a Notable Essay in Best American Essays 2016. She currently teaches at Sierra Nevada College and the low residency MFA program at Antioch University, Los Angeles.

You can connect with me, Leslie Lindsay, via these on-line platforms:

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[Cover and author image courtesy of Beacon Press and used with permission. Aurora Borealis/Northern Lights image retrieved from USAToday.com, quirky carpet layers from , the world revolves around me from, Life & Death Tree from Pinterest, no source noted, reading/book image from L. Lindsay’s personal archives, all on 11.16.17]