I was in the fifth grade when is There No Place on Earth for Me? was published, and it wasn’t until maybe 15 years later, after I’d started working as a journalist, that I first picked it up. Only when I reread the book recently did I realize that Sylvia Frumkin was born in the same year as my aunt Holly: 1948. There were other similarities, too. Both were dramatic characters, garrulous and vivacious. And when I was growing up, I remember Aunt Holly calling our house to announce that she, too, was planning to marry Mick Jagger. Once, she even went to Saks Fifth Avenue and bought a dress for the wedding.
My father has two sisters—there’s Aunt Holly and also Aunt Sue—and for reasons nobody could ever quite explain, both became seriously mentally ill. They shared the same diagnosis, manic depression (now known as bipolar disorder), though each manifested the illness differently. Over the years, they were both diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder, too.
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.”