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Book Review: When Truth Lies: A Journey With Schizophrenia by Terry Garahan

Louis Publishing Group (2011), $11.99

By Doug Bradley, NAMI Information & Referral Assistant

This novel is an honest and at times raw description of living with schizophrenia. When Truth Lies, while a work of fiction, realistically portrays the onset of schizophrenia in a young man, the response of society to his behaviors, his often contentious relationship to the mental health system, and his long term coping with his illness.

At the novel’s beginning in 1967, Kevin has just graduated from high school in upstate New York. While Kevin is experiencing some mental discomfort, such as feeling that classmates are looking at him like they know something secret about him, these feelings do not get in the way of his finishing school. Nor do they interfere with his helping his father’s construction business and having his first romance, although the intrusive thoughts and voices do make life increasingly difficult.

As the book progresses, Kevin joins the army but gets discharged due to his behavior. He then goes to work on a commune where he is hailed as a visionary until he frightens the hippies he works with. Incoherent, unable to get out of his bed and soiling his pants, Kevin is abandoned at an emergency room by the people who had preached universal love and charity. The leader of the commune believed that “society was mad, not the people in it.” Nonetheless, the commune people wash their hands of Kevin who enters the state psychiatric system.

The description of hospital life is also unflinching. From doctors who try to help but are often naïve to those who are downright cruel, from staff who are marking time until their retirement to those who are kind and could get better paying jobs elsewhere but for some reason stay on, the good and the bad are shown.

Another subject the book does not shy away from is sex and its complications, particularly for someone with mental illness. When Truth Lies shows how individuals in institutions experience relationships, whether consensual, inappropriate, or downright predatory, with other patients and staff members. While these passages may be discomforting to some readers, this is an aspect of institutional life that happens but is not often discussed.

The book also deals with Kevin living on the streets outside the hospital. While this portion of the book is no doubt familiar and painful to family members, it is enlightening for how some individuals living with mental illness experience everyday reality and life on the streets.

I have two quibbles with When Truth Lies. The first is that the setting and treatments (e.g. the large state hospital, the medicines) seem dated. While some individuals with mental illness still in large institutions and older medicines are used, the picture now is more varied. I don’t mean to imply that everything is better, just that there are (in theory) more options now for consumers and families. Some of the characters could have been more fully drawn, but this is a minor complaint.

When Truth Lies goes beyond bland clinical terms and describes in detail what many people go through. This book puts a human face, and an often uncomfortable one, on severe mental illness and the treatment system.

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