Aunt Holly had been a dancer when she was younger, and sometimes she’d hear voices telling her things she wanted to hear: “You’re going on tour with Bob Dylan!” For a moment, she’d feel elated at the news, but then the voices would turn on her, adding: “You’re going to dance on the grave of your murdered friend.”
Murdered friend? What murdered friend? What were they talking about? It made no sense, but the voices spoke to her so often and so emphatically that at times she believed them. It was an invisible sort of torture: Nobody could see what she was going through, and, if she tried to talk to anyone about it, well, they would think she was crazy. And, like Sylvia Frumkin, she seemed to be “treatment-resistant”: No matter what antipsychotic medication she took, the voices would not stop.
Aunt Sue didn’t hear voices like Aunt Holly did, and she had no delusions about marrying a Rolling Stone. She did, however, once cover the metal handle of her toilet flusher with two band-aids. As she explained: “I had to cover up every reflective surface in the house because that’s where the cameras are.”
Today Aunt Sue lives some 300 miles away. I don’t see her too often, but we did get the chance to talk recently at a family party. The topic of magazines came up, and my husband asked whether she read The New Yorker. “I read this piece about a mentally ill woman . . . ” she said, and anyone listening in on the conversation would have assumed she was talking about an article published recently. As it turned out, she was describing the four-part series about Sylvia Frumkin that Sheehan wrote for The New Yorker 31 years ago. “I’d never read anything like that, anything that was that descriptive and that was really compassionate,” she said. “It was the best journalism I had ever read on the subject.”
Her own introduction to the mental-health system had taken place two years earlier, when she’d spent three weeks in a mental hospital, where, she recalls, she was pinned down by aides and shot up with Thorazine. When I asked her what she liked about Sheehan’s work, she said: “I felt it was a really accurate view. The way she described the well-intentioned search for help and how everything gets screwed up: Error after error, bad judgments, each one compounding the next. That’s how it happens! The misunderstandings never get straightened out. It’s just this abyss that she’s going down. I really identified with it.”
The remarkable thing about Is There No Place on Earth for Me? is how easy Sheehan makes it for the reader to empathize with Sylvia. In real life, if confronted by a psychotic woman slathered in makeup and spouting delusional ideas, the average person would make a beeline toward the other side of the street. But by sticking with this story for so long, Sheehan lets the reader see Sylvia not only during her most insane moments, but at those times when she’s lucid, too. At one point, when her medication kicks in and her fantasy world begins to evaporate, Sylvia bemoans the absence of her own delusions. “You know, it was fun believing some of those things I believed, and in a way I hate to give up those beliefs,” she says one day at Creedmoor. “I’ll miss having those fantasies.”
Without an upcoming wedding to Mick Jagger to look forward to, she’s forced to confront the sorry state of her own life: “ I once thought, when I was about to finish medical-secretarial school, before I had a breakdown on the last day of school, that I’d graduate and get a job. I was looking forward to earning my own money, to having a credit card, to being a grown woman in my own right. If you can work and earn money, you can . . . buy new clothes instead of wearing state clothes. And you can have fun. But . . . ” she says. “When you know all those things exist for other people but not for you, sometimes it’s very hard to endure the not having. ”