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My Mother, My Self: Paranoid Schizophrenia and the Literary Mirror of Madness Mary T. Shannon, MSW, MS Columbia University, New York Graduate Program in.

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Presentation on theme: "My Mother, My Self: Paranoid Schizophrenia and the Literary Mirror of Madness Mary T. Shannon, MSW, MS Columbia University, New York Graduate Program in."— Presentation transcript:

1 My Mother, My Self: Paranoid Schizophrenia and the Literary Mirror of Madness Mary T. Shannon, MSW, MS Columbia University, New York Graduate Program in Narrative Medicine

2 Temporality and Culture How do we define madness? What does ‘crazy’ look like? Growing up with a mother who suffered from paranoid schizophrenia, I learned that the answers to these questions often said more about temporality and cultural context than they did about the malady itself. 1950’s and 1960’s America: the gendered nature of double standards and a need for conformity reigned, often skewing the lens through which we viewed individual differences.

3 Excerpts from my memoir, The Sunday Wishbone, are used to capture madness through an altogether different lens – a view from the eyes of a child, where ‘crazy’ doesn’t seem so crazy after all. “I was eight when I first heard the term ‘paranoid schizophrenia.’ “It was the morning after they’d taken my mother away again to the state mental institution, and I’d just come downstairs when I overheard my grandparents talking about it in the kitchen over breakfast.”

4 “They call it paranoid schizophrenia and say there’s no cure for it,” Grandma said, “but they’re giving her what they call shock treatments, and Dr. Sorensen says those should help. And he’s going to try some different medicine again.” “Well I don’t care what they call it or how much medicine they give her, she’s nuttier than a fruitcake,” Grandpa spit. “I ran back upstairs to our room, glancing over at Mom’s bed as I lay on mine.”

5 “I remembered what Mom had told me the last time they took her away, about how men could get as pissed off as they wanted and get away with it, but if a woman got good and mad and spoke her mind, they’d either shut her up with drugs; lock her up, or both.” “Maybe that’s all it was, I reasoned. Maybe speaking her mind with so much rage all the time was what made her ‘seem’ crazy, made her ‘look’ like she’d gone nuts.” “Unlike most, Mom refused to keep her stubborn pride and raging temper under lock and key, so Longview State Mental Hospital did it for her.”


7 “I could always tell by the blank stare on her face when she’d taken her pills, her eyes fixed and unmoving as she sat smoking one cigarette after another in slow motion..” “No matter how many times Grandma nagged her about it, Mom refused to wear a bra, saying she liked the feel of her breasts hanging loose.” “Mom didn’t care in the least that the sides of her bare breasts could easily be seen through the armholes of her dresses, or that strangers on the street would stare wide eyed and open mouthed as they passed by.”

8 Was it crazy for my mother not to wear a bra when everyone else was all buttoned down and proper, or was it simply brave and ahead of her time? Was it insane for her to speak her mind with so much passion and bravado, or was it a bolt of confidence that showed strength of character? Did being in touch with her feelings and then showing those feelings mean she was out of control, or did she simply possess more honesty and courage than most? How do we define madness, and what does crazy look like?


10 The Sanctity of Family Secrets “Unfortunately, Mom never did learn how to be different enough to be found interesting, but not so different that it didn’t scare everyone.” “Can you keep a secret?” Mom would ask between puffs off her Pall Mall. I’d nod solemnly and listen as she’d whisper warnings about grandpa poisoning the food, which is why we couldn’t eat that day.” “Then there were the times she was convinced he’d gassed the house to try and kill us all, opening every window in the dead of winter and refusing to close them until frost collected on the Venetian blinds and my teeth banged together like piano keys.

11 “But it was in the bedroom we shared where the biggest secret lied.” “You tell anyone and I’ll beat ya to a pulp,” Mom would warn, and I believed her.” “I was only five but I already knew better than to tell, and hid our secret so deep I sometimes wondered if God even knew.” “It happened late at night in the darkness of our room. Mom would call out for me in the sweetest voice I ever heard, my name riding the space between asleep and awake like a song.”

12 “I’d lie still as stone and pretend to be asleep, but then Mom would call our for me again – this time not so sweet anymore, and force me to stand at the foot of her bed and touch her in ways I never wanted, her legs spread wide and her back arched, the streetlight angled across her body like a three-quarter moon.” “I soon learned how to sleep without sleeping, how to pretend that everything was okay when it wasn’t.” “On Sundays after mass I’d walk home wondering if the church had a way of washing a soul clean, to scour it like you would a stain on a porcelain sink. I wanted to be cleansed like that, to be scrubbed so clean and shiny I wouldn’t feel stained or dirty ever again.”

13 “When I’d get home the house would always smell of Grandma’s fried chicken, and I’d grab the wishbone and run to find Mom so she could pull it apart with me and see who was going to get the bigger half and win.” “Winning the Sunday wishbone was like walking out of a movie with hope in your heart and a smile on your face, reassured, if only for a little while, that everything was going to be all right.” “Over time, I developed an unyielding belief that as long as God and the Sunday wishbone were around, everything could be fixed. No matter what happened, there was always Sunday to look forward to, always another chance, always another wishbone.”

14 From Silent Witness to Public Testimony Researchers are only now beginning to create typological schemes characterizing female sex offenders The “Psychotic Abuser” is one who suffers from psychosis as well as unmanageable “libidinal impulses,” like my mother Even now, a half century later, no one talks about mother-daughter incest, and yet it happens every day

15 I began writing my memoir with the intention of giving voice to the silent and the silenced In the process of writing, I found a safe harbor with which to objectify my past and try to make sense of it As I watched my words, phrases and paragraphs come together on the page, I could sometimes feel the weight of silence begin to lift, the burden of isolation begin to disintegrate

16 Literature provides a voice for the disenfranchised, a link from one world to another through the power of story By making our stories public, we claim not only our voice, but our place in the world. We connect with and join others in the imperative to tell, to make sense of our lives and create meaning, for the act of writing is and always will be, a struggle against silence My memoir ends with a letter I wrote to my mother when I was twenty-two, the day I learned of her death. She was only fifty-one years old:

17 Dear Mom, I never had a chance to say goodbye to you, but I wish I had…..sometimes I feel so sorry for you…sorry you had to live in that horrible world of voices; sorry that Daddy walked out on you….. But sometimes I don’t feel sorry for you at all. Sometimes all I feel is hatred toward you, a hate so strong it hurts. I hate you for not loving me, for not wanting me, for using me and abusing me. I hate you for being crazy, and I hate you for not being the mother I needed you to be… I still have nightmares…and flashbacks…I have trouble trusting, and I can’t fall asleep at night unless I’m alone….

18 …..These are my legacies, the fabric of who I am. But it’s not all of who I am. I am also the first one to fight any injustice, even when it’s not in my best interest. You were the one who taught me to stand up and speak out, to be brave no matter what. And I can do this because I have your stubborn determination, your stubborn pride… You gave that to me. You gave me what you could. I know that now. You won’t believe this, but what I think of most is how you held that wishbone for me every Sunday, saying it was a bunch of crap, but holding it anyway. You’d sigh, take one last drag off your cigarette, pick up the wishbone and hold it in your outstretched hand, waiting for me to take hold of the other end. And I always did.

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