Can you imagine any magazine today publishing the four-part series on Sylvia Frumkin that became this book? Even in 1981, its mere existence was improbable. In her book’s acknowledgements, Sheehan admits as much when she thanks William Shawn, editor of The New Yorker, describing him as “the only editor in the world who would have let a writer try to write about such a sad and difficult subject and who would then have published a hundred thousand words on the subject.”
In 1995, The New Yorker published “The Last Days of Sylvia Frumkin,” an article by Sheehan that doubles as a postscript to her book. Sylvia had died the year before of cardiac arrest inside another state mental hospital, Rockland Psychiatric Center, at age 46. In her article, Sheehan offers a behind-the-scenes look at her relationship with Sylvia: the inevitable tensions between writer and subject, which were compounded by Sylvia’s schizophrenia, and her efforts to maintain a friendship with her subject long after the book was done.
Three years ago, my aunt Holly passed away, too, though she made it to 61. She died at home, alone, in a tiny, dingy apartment in New Hampshire, her marriage long since ended. Like Sylvia, Aunt Holly’s last years were her worst. She became progressively sicker, the illness tightening its grip on her psyche, the voices in her head growing louder and more menacing. Some days they told her that 9/11 was her fault—that somehow she’d caused the Twin Towers to topple—and she’d feel overwhelmed by guilt, no matter how many times you tried to tell her that she had nothing to do with 9/11.
Her death had been unexpected; we don’t know the exact cause, but it, too, may have been cardiac arrest. I wrote her obituary for the local paper and included everything I thought she’d have wanted it to say: that she was an “extraordinary woman” with a “feisty spirit, warm manner, and an artistic soul”; that as a child she’d studied with the legendary Mary Day at the Washington School of Ballet; that she’d been a dance major at Skidmore and gone on to teach dance in Germany.
Her mental illness had first appeared when she was 22, and by the end it had left her impoverished, isolated, and at the mercy of voices she could not escape. None of it seemed fair, especially when you knew the whole backstory: when you saw the photos of her as a child and a teenager, so full of promise and optimism, before mental illness seized hold of her and quashed so many of her dreams.
At its heart, Is There No Place on Earth for Me? accomplishes what anyone who has loved someone with a mental illness would want: a portrait of a woman battling schizophrenia that tells the whole story, how the illness ravaged her life and how she fought back, how the system did and didn’t help her, and how, through it all, she persevered. Sylvia herself provided the book’s title. She was a student at New York’s High School of Music and Art when she had her first psychotic break. At 16, in an ambulance on the way to the hospital, she asked her mother, “Is there no place on earth for me?” It’s a question she asked again and again over the next years—and by the book’s end, this question haunts the reader, too.
*Editor’s Note: The name of Superman’s mermaid girlfriend is Lori Lemaris, not Lois Lemaris.