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Memoir: Adult Child Deals With Fatherís Schizophrenia

The Outsider: A Journey into My Fatherís Struggle with Madness

by Nathaniel Lachenmeyer (Broadway Books, 2000. 255 pages, hardcover)

Note: The Outsider was reviewed by Nicki Sahlin, Ph.D., executive director of NAMI Rhode Island, after she learned it was to be published and the author was to embark on a media blitz many NAMI members would encounter. If youíve heard Nathaniel Lachenmeyer interviewed or materials about his book were sent to your local NAMI, this review provides a glimpse into the story the author tells. (This review is not one submitted by the NAMI Literature Committee.)

Nathaniel Lachenmeyer, estranged from his father Charles since early adolescence, engaged in detective work and countless personal interviews to trace his fatherís history, which included long hospitalizations and nearly a solid year of homelessness in Burlington, Vermont, part of it during a winter of record cold. The authorís remarkable memoir has eleven sections with titles such as "The Sociologist," "The Father," and "The Patient," all roels of his father.

Charles Lachenmeyer had a Ph.D. in sociology, was for a time a professor at Hunter College, published two books, and, ironically, had specialized in analyses of the double-bind theory and schizophrenia. He was not just a competent sociologist; he was brilliant. His strength lay in the clarity and originality of his thinking, most of all in an unremitting application of logic to human behavior. A further irony is that when florid schizophrenia struck him, he exercised his intellect to perpetuate his denial, illustrating what a great leveler this illness can be. Nathaniel explains that Charles was convinced he did not suffer from schizophrenia, but was the victim of a huge conspiracy that used electronic technologies and thought control to shape his behavior. "My father believed that his persecutors had constructed the experiment specifically so that his protests would resemble the symptoms of schizophrenia."

While a college freshman, Nathaniel corresponded with his father, but then let his father know he could not keep in touch with him when his symptoms were acute. The son now sees that decision as "prejudice masquerading as logic," since we all willingly spend time with others whose beliefs are incompatible with our own. Learning of his sonís decision, Charles replied with his own characteristic logic:

Dearest Nathaniel,

Just received your letter. Even if I was a paranoid schizophrenic, which I am not, where is your charity? Such a condition is brought on by medical/social factors over which one does not have control and it is incumbent not to blame the victim.

While many points in this history are heart wrenching, especially the great divide between a father and son who loved each other, Charlesís sufferings while homeless are most unbearable. When Charles took off for Vermont, his treatment team in New Hampshire attempted to "make freedom a less attractive option." They used the representative payee mechanism and a legal guardian to withhold SSI benefits, effectively rendering him penniless at a time when he was also too ill to meet the "requirements" of the Way Station, a Burlington homeless shelter. In the sections called "The Stranger" and "The Thief," one learns how Charles, in a thin khaki jacket, survived the cold, frostbite, and near-starvation. Nathaniel was able to interview the very few willing to help his father during that time. They include Jason, a college student who regularly gave Charles cigarettes and conversed with him; Amy, a Subway restaurant manager who for a limited time was able to give him free coffee and a warm place to sit very late at night; and John Markey, a bank manager and former FBI agent who ignored Charlesís threats, gave him coffee, and always shook his hand. Nathaniel knew his father was filthy enough to be barred from a shelter; why would a bank manager shake his hand? "He told me that he felt it was important to treat him with the same respect he would extend to anyone else." Nathaniel writes. "I knew what effect that simple gesture must have had on my father. The transient goes through his days and nights without ever feeling the touch of another human being."

Fittingly, one of Nathaniel's ideas for dealing with stigma is a sociological solution. He suggests that the public needs to be taught tolerance: "Greater tolerance of the person with schizophreniaís belief system would greatly reduce their stress level and allow them to live in our world as they struggle to make sense of their world instead of forcing them to experience ever-increasing marginalization as the outsider."

At his fatherís funeral, Nathaniel read from one of his father's letters to him: "No matter how adverse the circumstancesóand mine have been adverseóthere is never any reason to give up." Nathaniel uses this message as a theme, recognizing that it was a good fatherís deliberate avoidance of logic, in that Charles actually had many reasons to give up. He forges a last link with his father by nevertheless making the statement his inspiration for this extraordinary book, one of the best about schizophrenia to have come out in recent years.