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NAMI Bookshelf October 2011


Book Review: A Legacy of Madness: Recovering My Family from Generations of Mental Illness by Tom Davis

Hazelden (2011), $14.95,

By Bob Carolla, NAMI Director of Media Relations

When Tom Davis worked as a reporter for the Bergen Record in New Jersey, he was one of the few, if not the only, reporters in the country who wrote a regular column—“Coping”—on mental health issues. In 2004, he received a Rosalynn Carter Mental Health Journalism Fellowship. Today, he is the New Jersey regional editor for AOL’s, a national source for local news.

As NAMI’s director of media relations, I have always welcomed a call or email from Tom. He is low-key and humble. His questions are insightful. His writing style, which makes human connections, is a gift.

What I never knew about Tom was his personal struggle with anxiety, bulimia and anorexia and a long trail of mental illness in his family. There was much he didn’t know himself—or at least didn’t understand—until he began writing A Legacy of Madness in 2007, in a course at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism.

In researching family history, Tom discovered that his great-great-grandmother, Lydia, on his mother’s side, and her adult son Frederick, died from self-inflicted gas asphyxiation in 1928. Five years later, another son died the same way. Psychiatric diagnoses weren’t the same as today, but family lore described symptoms similar to depression and obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), including perfectionism, low self-esteem and fear. They were never treated.

Ironically, Tom’s grandfather on his mother’s side became a personnel administrator at Greystone Park Psychiatric Hospital in New Jersey. He too showed signs of OCD, particularly perfectionism and a fear of germs.

Tom’s mother grew up on the grounds of the institution. She battled post-partum depression in the 1960s and like her father, alcoholism—drinking a half case of beer a day. Tom’s mother’s relationship with his father—as well as with Tom and his brother and sister—was painfully insecure, demanding, volatile and sometimes violent.

She was the first member of the family to be diagnosed with mental illness and treated. Later, Tom learned that a great uncle (Frederick’s son) was treated with electroconvulsive therapy (ECT).

“Since I was a child,” Tom writes, “I’ve often wondered why I am so imperfect, why my mother wasn’t a so-called ‘typical’ mother, and why my father was so stressed about it.”

“Now, as a parent, I’ve come to understand that the so-called perfect people are often more imperfect, more ignorant and more helpless than I ever imagined.”

A Legacy of Madness weaves the story of Tom’s family’s history of mental illness with their broader biography. Because it looks back several generations and profiles different relatives at different points, it sometimes is confusing—as in baseball, it may be hard to tell the players without a scorecard. What makes the book distinctive is how it blends mental illness with ordinary life passages over time.

Tom writes about high school and college romances while describing the anxiety that fed his eating disorders. As a cross-country runner, he discovered that athletics “made me attractive to girls,” but “going out on a date was like waiting for the starter’s gun to go off…I’d get stomach gas that was so severe I could barely eat.”

While coming to understand his family’s legacy of mental illness, Tom sees the current generation better able to confront it. He does worry though about his children and their genetic inheritance. He worries about whether certain signs or symptoms may arise and history could repeat itself.

“If those symptoms do arise, we will keep holding our children and never let go,” he writes. It’s the same sentiment that sustains us all.


Book Review: It’s Not Mental: Finding Innovative Support and Medical Treatment for a Child Diagnosed with a Severe Mental Illness by Jeanie Wolfson

Cerebella Publishing (2011), $24.95

By Doug Bradley, NAMI HelpLine Information and Referral Associate

When I first perused It’s Not Mental: Finding Innovative Support and Medical Treatment for a Child Diagnosed with a Severe Mental Illness, I was concerned that this book might argue that there was no such thing as mental illness. By the end, however, I was pleasantly surprised by its “leave no stone unturned” philosophy in treating psychiatric disorders.

The book centers on the author’s long struggle to alleviate her daughter’s suffering and, just as importantly, to find out what caused her symptoms. From infancy through her teenage years, Keri (the daughter) had a confusing and frustrating group of symptoms, both psychiatric and general. Sleep problems, crying spells, anxiety, depression, hallucinations, joint pain, headaches and tics were among Keri’s symptoms over this time. Psychiatrists, other physicians and mental health workers made many different diagnoses such as Tourettes’s, depression and schizoaffective disorder. They prescribed a myriad of treatments, from counseling to antipsychotics, some of which helped, some of which did nothing and some of which made Keri’s symptoms worse.

The author doggedly pursued many possible treatments including complementary and alternative to deal with the daughter’s “perfect storm” of genetic vulnerability. She eventually was able to find a regimen that helped Keri recover to an astonishing degree. Besides her determination, the author is also remarkable for knowing that what worked for her daughter will not work for everyone. Instead, she advocates an aggressive bio-psycho-social approach, which seems is often written about but not often practiced and collaboration among a team of physicians, including psychiatrists, to determine how to treat the patient. In the end, if an antidepressant helps, use it. If the symptoms are best relieved by dietary supplements, the physician should use them. Use the most effective treatment available for that individual, whatever it may be.

The author sometimes speaks of psychiatric treatment, including medication, as being different from medical treatment, but in other places considers psychiatry as a branch of medicine, which is sometimes confusing to the reader. However, her tenacity in helping her daughter and holistic view of brain illnesses is admirable.