There were times when the lobby of The Village Voice seemed to be a magnet for crazy people. When I worked there as a reporter in the late 1990s and early 2000s, it was a weekly, if not daily, occurrence: A mentally ill person walks in with a fistful of tattered, mimeographed papers, claiming to have the inside scoop on a major news story. The standard response for reporters: walk by quickly and try to ignore their paranoid rantings.
One day I opened the door to the lobby and spied a middle-aged woman with wild hair and manic energy. She was rambling on and on to the security guard—and instantly I knew which reporter she was looking for. Despite appearances, she was not one of our usual visitors. This woman was my aunt.
Aunt Holly, my father’s sister, lived with her husband and son some 20 miles away in New Jersey, but whenever she stopped taking her lithium—and the manic side of her manic depression reared up—she’d take off. Other family members had seen her appear unannounced on their doorstep. That day, I guess, it was my turn. Encountering her in the lobby of my workplace, I felt two contradictory emotions: embarrassed by her appearance, but also fiercely protective, raging silently in my head at any co-worker who might dismiss her as yet another of our usual insane visitors.
That’s the thing about mental illness. When your family member is the one affected—when you know that person’s life story, the childhood dreams that never came true, the countless job interviews that went nowhere—you want everyone else to see what you see: not a “lunatic” or a “mental case” or a “nut,” but a real person whose story is as important as anyone else’s, whose hopes and aspirations matter no less just because they are often so desperately out of reach.
Maybe this is why I’ve long admired Susan Sheehan’s Is There No Place on Earth for Me? The book, which originally ran as a four-part series in The New Yorker in 1981, chronicles the life of a young woman diagnosed with schizophrenia. Sheehan calls her Sylvia Frumkin—her real name was Maxine Mason—and she followed her for two-and-a-half years, much of which was spent inside a mental hospital, Creedmoor Psychiatric Facility, in Queens. The book won the 1983 Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction, and it stands as a landmark work of reportage on both what it’s like to be mentally ill and how the mental-health system treats, or fails to treat, those it was designed to serve.
The book is also a first-rate example of how to tackle a complex, often-misunderstood subject in a way that both captivates and educates the everyday reader. To report and write this book, Sheehan had to gain unfettered access to a state mental hospital, demystify a highly technical topic, secure the trust and cooperation of family members, and spend more than two years in close contact with a main character who was often erratic, manic, and beset by delusions. Any single one of these hurdles might have caused a lesser reporter to abandon the story and find something easier to write. Not only did Sheehan overcome each hurdle, she ultimately worked them into a fascinating and poignant narrative.
Every narrative journalist faces the task of trying to imagine the world from someone else’s point of view, and then writing in a way that allows the reader to do the same. This task varies in difficulty depending on whom you pick for your subject. It’s one thing to write about what it’s like to be a cop on patrol, a surgeon in the ER, or a lawyer on the eve of a high-stakes trial. But how do you get inside the mind of someone who is teetering on the edge of insanity, whose every other sentence makes no sense?