“I Know This Much Is True”: Mental Illness in Family

In I Know This Much Is True, the recent HBO adaptation of Wally Lamb‘s 1998 novel of the same name, Mark Ruffalo superbly portrays 40-year-old twin brothers, Dominick and Thomas Birdsey. Whereas the former has generally been a reasonably functional guy, the latter has paranoid schizophrenia and has been in and out of institutions since his early adulthood.

During the course of this six-part mini-series so much tragedy befalls the brothers that critic Lucy Mangan, The Guardian, opines that ” few will avoid compassion fatigue before the end.” I have to agree. Which isn’t to say it’s not worth seeing, if nothing else for the performances and a strong lesson in the theme that mental illness affects the whole family.

Perhaps if anyone in the family had ever received adequate help to guide them through Thomas’s diagnosis, things would have turned out different for the Birdseys—that is to say, better. At the start of I Know This Much Is True, Thomas, for example, may be getting by at his state-run facility known as Settle, but he is nonetheless dangerously symptomatic. Out in public he commits an act of extreme self-harm, which leads to an involuntary commitment to Hatch, a forensic facility notable for its cruelty.

Through many scenes that go back and forth in time we learn that Dominick, on the other hand, has struggled throughout their lives to act as Thomas’s guardian, at times appointed by others, e.g, a teacher or parent, at other times self-appointed. The extreme difficulty of this has raised all kinds of uncomfortable feelings and attitudes, including over-responsibility, confusion, guilt, and resentment. To his detriment, he has carried these mostly on his own shoulders.

Several years before Thomas’s commitment to Hatch the twins lose their mother (Melissa Leo) to cancer. Although their abusive stepfather cares about them he isn’t emotionally strong enough to be sufficiently supportive to either.

On top of all this, “Dominick’s mother never told him who his and Thomas’ biological father was, a mystery that eats away at him long after she’s gone. Her parting gift, a manuscript written by his Sicilian grandfather, dangles the possibility of answers” (Melanie McFarland, Salon).

Dominick, who married college sweetheart Dessa (Kathryn Hahn), a match that once had significant potential, is now divorced. His current girlfriend is more self-involved than attentive, which seems reciprocal on Dominick’s part.

In desperately hoping to have Thomas transferred back to Settle, where he at least had a job and a certain comfort level, Dominick grudgingly becomes acquainted with Hatch’s down-to-earth social worker Lisa Sheffer (Rosie O’Donnell) as well as Thomas’s caring new psychologist, Dr. Patel (Archie Panjabi). Both readily recognize that Dominick—angry, aggressive, and decreasingly healthy—needs professional assistance as much as Thomas does.

Whereas Sheffer tries to prepare Dominick for Thomas’s upcoming commitment hearing, Patel wants this therapy-resistant but desperately lost man to talk to her about his issues. (Shades of Nick Nolte‘s character seeing his suicidal sister’s psychiatrist in The Prince of Tidessans the poor therapist boundaries.) Quality professional help arriving so late in the game, however, fails to prevent mishap after tragedy after trauma in the brothers’ lives.

Ultimately, Dominick feels his life has been “cursed”—a notion reinforced by reading his maternal grandfather’s bio—and that he’s a victim of his various tragic circumstances rather than a participant. By the very end, though, we do know he’s learned a thing or two about such things as self-care and forgiveness.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.