May 08

“No One Cares About Crazy People”: As True As Ever

[Ron] Powers intends for the book to comfort families dealing with severe mental illness, to shock general readers with examples of atrocities befalling the mentally ill, to show that “crazy people” are rarely dangerous to anybody but themselves, and to push for significant reform. “I hope you do not ‘enjoy’ this book,” he writes in the preface. “I hope you are wounded by it; wounded as I have been writing it. Wounded to act, to intervene.” Kirkus Reviews, about No One Cares About Crazy People: The Chaos and Heartbreak of Mental Health in America (2017)

No One Cares About Crazy People was written before all the recent outrageous attempts to decimate the Affordable Care Act. Just imagine the additional things author Ron Powers could say now.

Powers writes about his two sons afflicted with schizophrenia. “For his son Kevin, that struggle ended in suicide, and the heartbreak of that experience (among others) permeates every impersonal date and statistic in the book with sorrow and rage” (Shelf Awareness). Son Dean is still in treatment.

As told to Terry Gross (NPR), “There is no greater…feeling of helplessness than to watch two beloved sons deteriorate before [your] eyes, not knowing what to do to bring them back.”

A brief explanation for the title as well as a book synopsis, per Publishers Weekly:

This resounding rebuke to scornful attitudes toward the mentally ill takes its title from a notably insensitive 2010 email exchange between high-level staffers of Scott Walker during his run for Wisconsin governor. Using that moment as a touchstone of indifference, Powers…weaves a dual tale of the personal and the political. In one thread, he traces the history of public efforts to ameliorate (or, more often, hide) the plight of those living with mental illness, from London’s infamous Bedlam in the 18th and 19th centuries, where wealthy visitors were charged admission to gawk at the inmates, to America’s present-day prison-industrial complex. In the other, he tells his own family’s heartrending story of grappling with disease…

Although drug therapy can be helpful, Powers believes, “(h)e recognizes that ‘Big Pharma’ has made money distributing drugs of questionable usefulness” (Margaret Quamme, The Columbus Dispatch).

A couple things Powers deems pointedly not helpful:

  • Deinstitutionalization: Many inpatient facilities closed in the 1960’s in favor of caring for patients in community mental health centers. If well-meaning, it also failed many who wound up in prisons.
  • Anosognosia (“The false conviction within a person that nothing is wrong with his mind”) is ignored by laws that prevent involuntary commitment to mental health facilities.

If indeed “no one cares about crazy people,” Powers means people other than their loved ones, of course. From Shelf Awareness: “For the families of the mentally ill…caring about ‘crazy people’ is a necessity. In roughly alternating chapters, Powers allows us to watch his sons grow up, dealing with the challenges of incipient schizophrenia as well as tragic events that shape their young minds. All the while, Powers movingly relates the joys of raising creatively gifted children.”

The critique by Ron Suskind, New York Times, offers a fitting conclusion for this post:

No doubt if everyone were to read this book, the world would change. But its clumsy title…is painfully correct. The mentally ill are still viewed with fear or suspicion, as broken, as damaged goods or objects of pity. Still, Powers will surely help to correct that perspective; it’s impossible to read his book without being overcome by empathy for his family, respect for his two beleaguered boys and, by the end, faith in the resilience of the human heart.

Mar 02

“Resilience”: Jessie Close’s Memoir About Bipolar Disorder

You would have thought that after Glenn starred in Fatal Attraction, our family would have had a serious discussion about mental illness. Even Glenn didn’t see the connection between the crazed Alex Forrester character she’d portrayed and me. Jessie Close, Resilience: Two Sisters and a Story of Mental Illness

Many familiar with actress Glenn Close may already know she’s had an active role in helping to eradicate mental health stigma and that both her younger sister Jessie Close and her nephew Calen, Jessie’s son, have spoken openly about their own mental health issues.

In this PSA for their organization Bring Change 2 Mind, Calen, who has schizophrenia, is front and center. Glenn and Calen’s mom are also featured:

Recently Jessie, assisted by both Pete Earley and Glenn, wrote a memoir, Resilience: Two Sisters and a Story of Mental Illness, which reveals that a diagnosis of bipolar disorder with psychotic features was a long time in coming for her. 50-ish when she began to learn about her condition, Jessie had already experienced five failed marriages and a history of drug/alcohol addictions. And her son had been diagnosed with schizophrenia.

From an excerpt Early provides on his website, we learn that Jessie had actually been haunted by voices since her teens. She refers to the voices as “the Creature”—and they often told her to kill herself.

Was there anything significant from Jessie’s childhood that may have affected her mental health? Possibly. Kirkus Reviews describes a history of parental abandonment and family cult involvement:

…(H)er story quickly escalates into a harrowing ride for readers unaccustomed to the ups and downs of someone living with a mental disorder. When her parents joined the Moral Re-Armament [a cult] in the 1950s, Close’s childhood became chaotic, with frequent moves, one of which led the family to Switzerland and another to the Belgian Congo, where her father was physician to President Mobutu. By 15, she’d moved back to America to live with her grandmother and instantly began experimenting with sex, drugs and alcohol, three things Close would continue to abuse for the next three decades.

Selected Book Reviews

Publishers Weekly: “Close’s story alternates with brief corroborative vignettes written by her sister in a belabored and grim memoir that will nonetheless reach its intended audience thanks to the author’s famous sister and their shared nonprofit group geared toward mental health, Bring Change 2 Mind.”

Keith Herrell, Bookpage: “With a title like Resilience, it’s a foregone conclusion that the book will end on a hopeful note—in Close’s words, ‘a new chapter in my life, one of sobriety, hope and purpose.’ With her sister’s encouragement, Close is telling her story to the world in hopes of removing the stigma from mental illness. It’s a story well worth reading.”

Sharon Peters, USA Today: “Keep plugging through it. She has lived a life that even at her worst was spellbinding, and it’s a definitely-worth-the-read memoir.”

Oct 17

“Home”: An Indie Film About Mental Illness (Now On DVD)

The true obstacle is other people’s doubts. Jono Oliver, creator of Home, to NAMI

Although the award-winning drama Home has been on DVD since March, I just heard of it for the first time via a professional newsletter—writer/director/producer Jono Oliver happens to be the son of two New York City social workers.

Bob Carolla, National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), introduces the film: “Home is an inspiring independent film about mental illness: serious, warm, intense and humorous. It has won the Entertainment Industries Council’s PRISM Award for 2014 for its portrayal of a person living with mental illness and was a nominee for Outstanding Director in a Motion Picture at the NAACP’s Image Awards.”

The Story

Character Jack Hall (Gbenga Akinnagbe) has schizophrenia and has lived for many years in a group home in New York City. He’s now gotten himself a job and feels ready to leave the facility and find his own apartment. His therapist (James McDaniel) and head nurse (K.K. Moggie), however, aren’t convinced this is the best idea.

Inkoo Kang, Los Angeles Times: “A home is also a precondition in reestablishing a relationship with his young son (Judah Bellamy). But teaching the boy about becoming a man begins to feel cruel when Jack is so rarely treated like one himself.”

Chris Packham, The Village Voice: “…an Odyssey, with Jack Hall…its anxiety-ridden Ulysses whose curse is a severe mental disorder.”

Some of the Supporting Players and Additional Plot Points

Frank Scheck, Hollywood Reporter:

Jack’s best friend Dundee (Danny Hoch) represents a cautionary tale of sorts. A grocery story delivery man who spends most of his time hawking bootleg DVDs, he encourages Jack to pursue his goals even while displaying signs of the mental illness with which he is similarly afflicted.

Rebuffed by his uncaring father (Joe Morton) and met with clearly well-deserved suspicion by his embittered ex-wife (Tawny Cypress), Jack becomes increasingly desperate.

The Trailer

More About Jack

Frank Scheck, Hollywood Reporter: “Jack has clearly done significant damage both to himself and the people in his life, but it’s impossible not to root for him in his struggle to regain dignity and self-respect.”

Elaine Hegwood Bowen, Film Monthly: “Jack’s character is so endearing, and, as shattered as his life is, he is also concerned about his fellow patients at the group home and one friend who lives on the street, working minimum hours delivering groceries.”

Chris Packham, Village Voice:

Akinnagbe’s embodiment of Jack is the most wholly realized accomplishment in the film. His speech, hesitant and stammering, is matched by defensive body language, his walk and posture as guarded and wary as a bird’s…

Jack is an infant sitting at the edge of a cliff, an innocent in terrible danger, beset by the indifference or antagonizing of nearly every other character.

The Portrayal of Mental Illness

A psychiatric nurse served as an advisor behind the scenes. As told to NAMI by Oliver:

…[She] worked with me to come up with diagnoses for the entire cast. Each person had a very detailed backstory, even though it was typically not an overt part of the film. Not one diagnosis is spoken out loud in the film. It was important to me to not label them. I wanted the audience to get to know them as they act and behave as opposed to by some illness that someone says they have, with all of the preconceptions and misconceptions that this often breeds.

Miriam Bale, New York Times: “Mental illness is presented here as something by turns endearing, surprising and frightening. A jarring realism comes both from Mr. Oliver’s script and the performances by an ensemble of brilliant character actors…”

Overall Reviews

Elaine Hegwood Bowen, Film Monthly: “First-time director Jono Oliver brings to life a brilliant movie that covers the issue of mental health in such a soft, caring way that allows The Wire actor Gbenga Akinnagbe to shine.”

Stephanie Merry, Washington Post: “…’Home’ deals with an important topic we don’t see enough onscreen, and the movie’s depiction of mental illness is sympathetic without pulling punches. We see the world through Jack’s eyes, which allows us to both root for him and fear that he may not, in fact, be ready for his own place.”

Frank Scheck, Hollywood Reporter: “Although a bit too leisurely and featuring a few too many interminable group therapy scenes, the film nonetheless succeeds in packing considerable dramatic impact thanks to its incisive characterizations, realistic dialogue and well-drawn milieu.”

Oct 06

“Rocks in My Pockets”: Mental Illness in One Family

I made the film not for my own therapy, but to entertain an audience, to make them think and engage them in a conversation. For me a film is a form of communication; yes, part of it is a self-expression, but it is also an exchange of ideas, a dialogue. Signe Baumane, MovieHole, about Rocks in My Pockets

Rocks in My Pockets, according to the final words of its trailer, is “a funny film about depression.” It’s also, per the tagline, A crazy quest for sanity.

In the writer/director/narrator Signe Baumane‘s own words:

‘Rocks In My Pockets’ is a story of mystery and redemption. The film is based on true events involving the women of my family, including myself, and our battles with madness. It raises questions of how much family genetics determine who we are and if it is possible to outsmart one’s own DNA. The film is packed with visual metaphors, surreal images and my twisted sense of humor. It is an animated tale full of art, women, strange daring stories, Latvian accents, history, nature, adventure and more.

More About the Women

Charles Solomon, Los Angeles Times: “…(T)hree generations of intelligent, educated women in her family struggled with depression, possible schizophrenia and suicide. Twice, neighbors found her paternal grandmother, Anna, floundering in the shallow river near her home in the Latvian forest. Despite her obvious vigor, Anna’s premature death at 50 was ascribed to a mysterious heart problem. Two of Baumane’s cousins were suicides, and Baumane herself was diagnosed as manic-depressive before she left Latvia for the United States.”

About the Title

Peter Keough, Boston Globe: “…(S)he tries to trace the depressive gene back through her family tree. She begins in Latvia in 1949, where a peasant is horrified to see her neighbor Anna, Baumane’s grandmother, standing fully clothed in a shallow river. It seems that, like Virginia Woolf, Anna was trying to drown herself. Unlike Woolf, she forgot to put rocks in her pockets to weigh herself down.”

The Trailer

The Animation and Style

Ben Sachs, Chicago Reader: “…(C)haracters morph into animals or objects, then back again, and metaphors are rendered literally. The latter device helps to convey the subjectiveness of mental illness—during one of the heroine’s depressive episodes, a balloon full of razorblades inflates inside her stomach.”

Nick Schager, Village Voice: …(T)he filmmaker creates a swirling, semi-hallucinatory panorama of emotional distress, where fantasies and realities blur, and in which familial and social expectations repeatedly drive women to forgo their own aspirations and assume traditional roles that, time and again, lead only to unhappiness and suicidal thoughts and actions.”

The Narration

Nicolas Rapold, New York Times: “It’s told with remorseless psychological intelligence, wicked irony and an acerbic sense of humor.”

Christy Lemire, rogerebert.com: “…Baumane tends to meander in her storytelling, bouncing around in time as she visits such disparate subjects as history, suicide, education and feminism. And she employs a sing-songy, heavily accented tone of voice, regardless of the subject matter. It’s immediately off-putting and it smothers every second of the film, but eventually you grow accustomed to the narration and it becomes merely grating.”

Charles Solomon, Los Angeles Times: “Unfortunately, Baumane’s narration greatly weakens ‘Rocks in My Pockets.’ The thick Latvian accent is less a problem than her stolid delivery.”

The Mental Illness

Nick Schager, Village Voice: “With an insightfulness born from firsthand experience, Rocks in My Pockets posits depression, anxiety, and schizophrenia as conditions that, though potentially lethal, remain manageable, if only through persistent battle.”

Charles Solomon, Los Angeles Times: “‘Rocks in My Pockets’ is not an easy film to watch: It rips the bandages — and scabs — off what are clearly festering wounds. But it serves as a striking reminder of the individuals who suffer similar pains in silence, and of the special power of animation to make the unseen visible.”

The Takeaway

Alissa Simon, Variety:

Like Baumane’s earlier shorts, the years-in-the-making ‘Rocks in My Pockets’ is fiercely feminist. It opposes opportunity and responsibility, and questions why women should have to please people at the expense of their dreams. Some of the images, such as that of a woman trapped under a bell jar while her husband watches from outside, perfectly epitomize marriage as experienced by Anna and her female descendants. Meanwhile, apt turns of phrase in the spoken narration (e.g., ‘My mind feels like a badly wired building’) make mental illness seem less alien.

Ella Taylor, NPR:

Baumane’s most poignant insight is that for potential suicides who really mean business, the pain grows so insufferable, or the voices in their heads so persuasive, that they see death as relief, even liberation from their suffering. One relative speaks of killing herself as an act of freedom. Baumane describes one meticulous plan to hang herself as her ‘way to success.’

That has the ring of truth — who among us has not wondered why so-and-so killed him or herself when they had so much to live for? But it’s a bitter pill to swallow for those left behind. So it comes as a huge relief to know that this endlessly imaginative artist found another way to save herself from the isolation that prompts so many suicides.

Nick Schager, Village Voice: “’Rocks in My Pockets’ offers a lot to process, both visually and emotionally. It’s an exhausting experience at just under 90 minutes, and it might have been more powerful in shorter form. The fact that it offers hope at the end—for Baumane herself and for anyone who has suffered similar torment—is an enormous relief.”

Find a Screening

Click here for that part of the movie’s website.

Apr 17

“Call Me Crazy”: Five Shorts About Mental Health Issues

Airing for the first time this coming Saturday is Lifetime’s Call Me Crazy: A Five Film (“Life is anything but normal”) starring Jennifer Hudson, Octavia Spencer, Brittany Snow, Melissa Leo, Ernie Hudson, Jason Ritter, Jean Smart, Lea Thompson, Melanie Griffith, and more.

Mental health issues such as PTSD, bipolar disorder, depression, and schizophrenia are featured in five interconnected brief pieces. Lifetime reports, “Through the five shorts named after each title character — Lucy, Eddie, Allison, Grace and Maggie – powerful relationships built on hope and triumph raise a new understanding of what happens when a loved one struggles with mental illness.”

Each character in Call Me Crazy may show up in other stories in addition to her own. Lucy (Brittany Snow), a law student diagnosed with schizophrenia, is in three of the shorts, for example.

At least one therapist will be portrayed. Octavia Spencer, who plays Lucy’s therapist, talks about the Call Me Crazy with Erin Hill, Parade:

‘I hope that viewers learn that people with mental illness deserve a shot at a productive life and deserve to not be defined by their illness,’ she says. ‘I didn’t realize how many people don’t get the support and therapy that they need to live productive lives. We need to take that step to learn as much as we can about mental illness because those diseases are non-discriminating — age, gender, socioeconomic or educational background — it doesn’t matter. The more we know, the more equipped we are to aid people who might be in our family or set of friends.’

A movie trailer is available below: