Putting a literary spotlight on mental health
BRATTLEBORO — Pulitzer Prize-winning author Ron Powers' past works have eagerly explored everything from the 1800s literary lion Mark Twain to the flag-raising World War II soldiers at Iwo Jima to the present-day pioneers of broadcast news and sports.
The Vermonter's current focus is different.
"This is the book I promised myself I would never write," Powers begins its preface. "I have kept that promise for a decade — since our younger son, Kevin, hanged himself in our basement, a week before his 21st birthday in July 2005, after struggling for three years with schizophrenia."
The author, born 75 years ago in Twain's hometown of Hannibal, Mo., can boast to a prolific career that has seen him in a columnist's chair at the Chicago Sun-Times, a commentator's seat on the CBS News program "Sunday Morning" and on the bestseller list for more than a dozen books that include collaborating on the late U.S. Sen. Edward Kennedy's memoir "True Compass."
But after the death of one of his two boys, the Castleton resident could barely think about, let alone tackle another project. He and his wife, Honoree Fleming, were finally starting to heal ("adaptation, really," he says) when they witnessed their surviving son, experiencing a psychotic break one Christmas, tell neighbors he was the messiah before police took him to a hospital.
And so Powers began to research mental illness — not just the schizophrenia his family has faced but also all the other issues the World Health Organization estimates will affect one-fourth of the world's people at some point in their lives.
"I realized that my 10 years of silence on the subject," he says, "silence that I had justified as insulation against an exercise in self-indulgence, was itself an exercise in self-indulgence."
And so Powers is talking up his new book, "No One Cares About Crazy People: The Chaos and Heartbreak of Mental Health in America." The 384-page Hachette hardcover shares his family's story alongside a historic and often horrific survey of mental illness in larger society.
"Studies by the National Institute of Mental Health show that among Americans age 18 or older, more than 62 million (26 percent of the population) require (but are not always given) counseling and medical treatment," he writes.
Powers could cite too many reasons for not wanting to tackle the topic: What about his family's privacy? The appearance of exploitation? The fact that he isn't an expert?
"Book writing is hard work," he continues. "And, really, end of the day, who the hell wants to read about schizophrenia anyway?"
Plenty of people, the author would discover. Nearly a decade after their son's death, Powers and his wife accepted an invitation to testify at a 2014 Vermont legislative hearing on whether acutely mentally ill patients should be medicated against their will.
"At first glance, speedy 'involuntary treatment' might seem the least objectionable of measures, given that people in psychosis are virtually never capable of making rational decisions," he writes in his book. "And yet opponents of the process bring passionate counterarguments to the debate. Among the most formidable is that 'involuntary treatment' is by definition a violation of one's civil liberties."
Powers testified in support of shorter waits on decisions about involuntary intervention, which the state Legislature went on to adopt as law. But the author was moved by opponents of the measure.
"They were there: the faces and souls of the mentally ill, emerging from their prevailing invisibility to declare themselves," he writes. "The sheer presence of them, their actualization in the room, had affected me in the gut, not because I hadn't expected them, but because of the profound, elemental humanity of them."
Three weeks later, Powers read news of a Wisconsin political aide who, responding to headlines of state mental health mismanagement, emailed a colleague: "No one cares about crazy people."
That's when the author started writing — for himself, his household, other families, friends, neighbors and psychiatric professionals.
"My aim with this book is not to replace or argue with the existing vast inventory of important books on mental illness," he writes. "Rather, I hope to reamplify a simple and self-evident and morally insupportable truth: Too many of the mentally ill in our country live under conditions of atrocity."
Powers has taken his message to National Public Radio's "Fresh Air" program and is seeing it shared in publications nationwide.
"He writes with fierce hope and fierce purpose to persuade the world to pay attention," fellow Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Ron Suskind wrote in a review for the New York Times. "I'm not sure I've ever read anything that handles the decline of one's children with such openness and searing, stumbling honesty."
Readers can learn for themselves when Powers speaks at the Brattleboro Literary Festival Saturday at 11 a.m. at downtown's Centre Congregational Church. If similar appearances are any indication, he'll share a few of the book's humorous family stories, too.
"Why do I include these?" he told an audience in Manchester. "Because they make me smile and bring the two boys to life. I wanted to avoid a kind of clich — the afflicted loved ones described only in the context of their victimhood. It's hard to feel compassion for an abstract. My sons were wonderful spirited boys before this affliction struck."
That said, Powers isn't seeking to entertain.
"I hope you do not 'enjoy' this book," he writes. "I hope you are wounded by it; wounded as I have been in writing it. Wounded to act, to intervene."
"America must turn its immense resources and energy and conciliatory goodwill to a final assault on mental illness," he concludes. "My sons, and your afflicted children and brothers and sisters and parents and friends, deserve nothing less."
Powers will read from his book on Saturday, at 11 a.m. at the Centre Congregational Church, on Main Street. His reading is presented by The Brattleboro Retreat, in association with the Brattleboro Literary Festival.
Kevin O'Connor is a Reformer contributor and VTDigger.org correspondent who can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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