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Mad House: Growing Up in the Shadow of Mentally Ill Siblings

by Clea Simon

Review by Lisa Miller and Kathy Nealen, NAMI Literature Committee

Mad House: Growing Up in the Shadow of Mentally Ill Siblings
by Clea Simon is a personal, often painful account of the author's experiences growing up in an upper-middle class, caring family deeply affected by the mental illnesses, or brain disorders, of her two older siblings. Simon is the youngest in a family of three children. She watched her brother Daniel, 10 years older, decompensate from the bright and admired brotherly caretaker who entered Harvard after high school to a young man ravaged with paranoid thoughts and hallucinations, unable to realize his goals and maintain his role in the family. Her sister Katherine, eight years her senior, was affected at a much earlier age by what eventually evolved into paranoid schizophrenia. She became Simon's unpredictable but regular tormentor in a household that tried naively and fruitlessly to protect the author from the effects of the illnesses of her siblings.

Simon helpfully reports recent findings in the areas of genetics, brain research, and the factors influencing both schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. However, the book's focus and its real strength is the author's depiction of her own experiences as a child and the struggles that continued into adulthood. The effects of mental illness on well siblings has often been overlooked, and coming to grips with the pain of their well children may be too much to add to the extraordinary burdens of a parent dealing with a child with a mental illness.

Clea Simon grew up to attend Harvard herself and to become an accomplished journalist and writer. With the help of professional counseling, she gradually came to understand her experiences and losses and to make positive changes in her life. In Mad House, she shares her struggles and growth and gives permission for siblings to have difficulties coping and to seek both group support through NAMI and professional counseling.

Mad House: Growing Up in the Shadow of Mentally Ill Siblings by Clea Simon. Doubleday, 1997. 211 pages