Tag Archives: Massachusetts

Just Like Someone without Mental Illness Only More So by Mark Vonnegut

I was intensely interested in reading Just Like Someone without Mental Illness Only More So for a couple of different reasons. The first one is that it’s by the son of Kurt Vonnegut, one of my favorite authors. The second is that the premise of the book is that he discusses what it’s like to be both a successful doctor and a person with bipolar disorder. I liked his description of how his life unfolded and appreciated his insight into his life as a whole. I’ve not read his fiction, but I would say that his ability to show the reader what it is like to have a mental disorder while maintaining a successful and functional (for the most part) lifestyle shows there might be a familial tie for writing talent.

Vonnegut talks a bit about what it was like to grow up with his father. Kurt was a gruff man – if you want to put it mildly – and, despite the good things he did, like taking in his nephews after their parents died, Mark Vonnegut doesn’t give the impression that he ever did become an outwardly caring father. What he does show us is that his father was there when he needed him, like during his hospitalizations.

One aspect of Vonnegut’s book that I especially liked was that he wrote about what it was like to be in school and become successful at his profession and then have his disease get out of control. I think most people don’t get the fact that people with bipolar disorder can recover. It’s important, in my opinion, that people like the author come forward and talk about the fact that, yes, he has a mental illness, and, yes, he has been hospitalized for it, and now he’s doing well as a physician (and not only a physician, but a pediatrician).

I also liked that he talked about self-medication. For him, the substance of choice was alcohol, and it caused serious problems for him and his family. No matter what the drug, I think it’s important for people to know that substance abuse can be a sign of undiagnosed or improperly treated mental illness.

One thing I didn’t like was that Vonnegut appears to still have some of the risk-taking behaviors. He became a mushroom hunter and, at one point, ate one that wasn’t so good for him. His wife had to take him to the hospital to get his stomach pumped. I don’t know if it was included as an example to say that he’s not “cured” and that treatment of bipolar disorder is an ongoing process, but I found it scary that he might not realize that he still has urges to do reckless things that he might not have even full reflected on.

Overall, I’m glad Vonnegut wrote Just Like Someone without Mental Illness Only More So. A lot of people will be educated and a lot of people will find hope within its covers.

Rating: 4/5.

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Filed under 4/5, Book review, Favorable, Nonfiction

Screw: A Guard’s View of Bridgewater State Hospital by Tom Ryan

Tom Ryan’s Screw is a report on the time he spent as a guard at Bridgewater State Hospital, an institution that was supposed to be a place where those with mental illness to be housed and receive treatment.  Rather than receive the care that the courts or their doctors recommended, however, Ryan asserts that the patients were abused.  Screw is an interesting exploration of the institutional culture of a mental hospital in the 1970s.

Let me start off by saying that the book is fairly simply written.  Chapters are short.  They typically encase one encounter or event.  The book is an easy read; perhaps too easy.  It feels almost flimsy in its written structure.  This shouldn’t be too surprising; the book was published by a company called South End Press.  Its stated opinion on copyright, as found on the copyright page of the book, is:  “Copyrights are required for book production in the United States.  However, in our case, it is a disliked necessity.”  I’m sure this was some sort of comment on the state of publishing rights forty years ago, but what comes across today is a lack of attention to detail; they didn’t care enough to make sure the book was formatted correctly and free of errors.  Perhaps this isn’t a big deal for fiction books, but if you’re accusing people of having initiated and maintained long-term abuse of patients, you might want to make sure the book has no flaws for the accused to point at and say, “Well, you spelled this wrong, and some of the details don’t make sense.  Are you sure you’re right on the rest of what you’re accusing people of?”

Once you get a grasp on and forgive the structure, Ryan gives us small accounts in each chapter.  He explains what brought him there — he volunteered first through school, and then decided to go “under cover” as a guard.  He then gives us the grisly details.  There are not one, but two, men who gouge out their own eyes in response to treatment by guards.  Many patients are beaten up.  The overall doctor of Bridgewater, even though he never sees the patients, fights to keep them in the hospital.  Most of the guards are not decent humans, as is shown over and over again.

I’m perfectly willing and able to understand that an institution can have such an atmosphere that those who are amoral can take over and call the shots.  I find it difficult to believe that the entire group of people have no consciences and allow these things to happen, but I do have to remember that people had a hard time thinking that the Nazis were killing an entire group of people.  So, yes, possible that a lot of people were doing some horrible things.  My problem, though, is with Ryan himself.  Before he even puts himself in the position of being a guard, he talks to a professor of his about going into Bridgewater posing as a patient.  His professor is not in favor of this, and offers instead that Ryan can work on a survey he’s doing on the inmates, and that he would be an author on the paper that came as a result.  Ryan turns this down, which is fine.  He was arrogant in his reasoning, however — the study is flawed and he basically thought his professor was an idiot for wanting to do it.  This behavior leads me to believe that Ryan wasn’t a quiet observer, but actively baited others in Bridgewater to manipulate them into more aggressive actions.

Screw opened my eyes to how badly we can treat each other when there’s a power differential.  I just wish the observer had been able to be impartial.

Rating: 2/5.

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Filed under 2/5, Book review, Mixed, Nonfiction

Girl, Interrupted by Susanna Kaysen

I guess I should have learned my lesson by now — don’t judge a book by its movie.  Girl, Interrupted came out when I was in high school.  Winona Ryder played Susanna Kaysen.  She portrayed Susanna as a relatively normal woman who managed to be railroaded into a stay in McLean Hospital for mental health treatment, while Angelina Jolie played Lisa, another girl in the institution, as a complete nut.  The true story Kaysen tells about her own life is more nuanced than that, which I am thankful for.  It doesn’t, however, make her story more interesting to me.

First, the good part:  Kaysen writes a lot about what she thought about — and still thinks about.  It’s amazing to see what goes through her mind.  It’s also surprising that we’re allowed in there, since the movie led me to believe she was in McLean simply because of a series of misunderstandings.  From reading her exposition, however, it’s obvious that’s not the case.  Kaysen has some seriously abnormal mental processes.  Her thoughts are scattered and, at some points, downright frightening to read.

The upside of this, though, is that she has wonderful insight into the nature of what is considered sane and insane.  She makes the point that homosexuality was once considered a mental illness, listed in the DSM, and implies that she hopes borderline personality disorder (her diagnosis) will at some point be removed, as well.  I think this is doubtful.

Another part of the book that drove me nuts was the claim she was railroaded into institutionalized treatment.  I found this hard to believe after learning how she, along with the rest of the patients, spent time manipulating and lying to the staff of the hospital.  My experience is that, if a person is good at manipulating others, they are also good at spotting when they themselves are being manipulated.  I find it hard to believe that she didn’t know where she was going or why she was going.  I find it even harder to believe that she couldn’t figure a way out of it had she not, somewhere inside her, wanted to go.

The one other thing that drove me nuts was Kaysen’s story structure.  She tells her tale in a mostly-linear fashion, but some stories occur that feature someone as a background character after we have read the story about their death or their release.  I didn’t care for that.  I suspect she might have experienced these stories, or remembers them, in the same order she presents them.  It’s part of her reality that I don’t care to share.

With that said, I did really like most of the substance of her book.  I enjoyed greatly her character studies of the other patients and of staff members.  I thought the recounted tales of their exploits, both large (Lisa’s escapes) and small (lying about sexual behavior to the psychiatrist) were both entertaining and telling about what life in a mental institution can do to someone.  Her insight into so many different aspects of mental illness, relationships, and the society of the 1960s is so good.  I wish she were able to do a better job with how much control she gives her mental illness and a more consistent stance on whether it does or does not impair her behavior.

Rating: 2.5/5.

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Filed under 2.5/5, Book review, Mixed, Nonfiction