November 22, 2019

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Mental-illness memoir shares niece, uncle's voices

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 17/2/2018 (643 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 17/2/2018 (643 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Former BuzzFeed features editor Sandra Allen was a frequent and diverse contributor, whose work spanned autobiographical reflections to pop-cultural profiles to annotated lists galore. A Kind of Mirraculas Paradise, a sort of collaborative biographical project with her uncle Bob, is her first book.

Bob and Allen had a friendly if not overly close relationship. Distance can be measured by both geography and familial warmth; Bob was often aloof from other adults, with a sense of humour well-appreciated by the youngsters. Aside from long-distance phone calls, Bob and Allen came to interact less and less. A family cabin located in Northern Minnesota provided the focal point of much of their interaction, and lends its name to the book.

Learning that Allen is an aspiring writer, Bob sends her a 60-page autobiographical account of his experiences developing adolescent schizophrenia in a tumultuous 1960s America. Bob implores Allen to publish his story, itself replete with spelling and grammatical inconsistencies. More troubling to Allen is the potential damage to family relationships the book threatens.

Allen’s initial reluctance is evident in the considerable delays in reading, much less editing, Bob’s manuscript. Even so, she has produced a coherent and compassionate account.

Chapters alternate between Bob’s story and Allen’s own reflections on family, writing and an attempt to precisely locate the meaning of schizophrenia, from lenses both personal and cultural. Allen describes her treatment of Bob’s story as a "cover version," conveying the same message in a new style. A heavy and poignant responsibility for Allen is that Bob did not live to see her early drafts.

Refreshing and humane in her treatment of Bob’s story, Allen avoids diagnosis or overt psychological analysis. Where relatives connect Bob’s illness to his parents’ acrimonious divorce or drug use, Allen chooses to defer. Her approach is descriptive rather than diagnostic, choosing to honour Bob’s life and experiences.

Furthermore, Allen is generally content to let Bob’s account stand. A hospital encounter with Kenny Rogers, hearing him play unpublished songs, seems likely an admixture of fantasy and truth. Instead of a historical accounting, Allen concerns herself with Bob’s interpretation of experience. The result, at times, borders on hallucinatory, as the reader experiences Bob’s own inability to locate firm ground.

Even with her compassion, Allen makes clear discomfort with many of Bob’s beliefs, which include racist, homophobic and ableist elements. She neither makes excuses for him nor for the times, but also does not belabour those areas in which they differed.

Bob’s forced institutionalization evokes empathy, and his first-person account is fascinatingly uneven. At the same time, it is interesting to note that Bob otherwise lived a fairly mundane, if unstable, life, especially so as he aged. Either because of his illness or in spite of it, Bob’s life contained few truly remarkable events. It is in common triumph and tragedy that bridges form between reader and Bob.

An unresolved tension revolves around the generalizability of Bob’s experience. His family’s wealth enabled access to facilities inaccessible to contemporaries. Throughout, Allen very clearly shows that there is something wrong with the historical conceptualization and treatment of mental illness, no less than in the present, but she falters when addressing the thorny topic of alternatives.

Even if A Kind of Mirraculas Paradise is unable to solve the myriad difficulties faced by individuals experiencing mental illness — an unlikely feat, after all — this book fills a valuable space.

The horrors Bob faced — in his unwilling disconnection from family and friends, his unfulfilled aspirations, the dreams that might seem prosaic combined with a belated and only partial peace in later life — are a call to compassion, understanding and thinking anew.

Jarett Myskiw is a Winnipeg teacher.

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