Genre: Nonfiction, Psychology
Length: 360 Pages
Release date: March 21, 2017
Publisher: Hachette Books
New York Times-bestselling author Ron Powers offers a searching, richly researched narrative of the social history of mental illness in America paired with the deeply personal story of his two sons’ battles with schizophrenia.
From the centuries of torture of “lunatiks” at Bedlam Asylum to the infamous eugenics era to the follies of the anti-psychiatry movement to the current landscape in which too many families struggle alone to manage afflicted love ones, Powers limns our fears and myths about mental illness and the fractured public policies that have resulted.
Braided with that history is the moving story of Powers’s beloved son Kevin–spirited, endearing, and gifted–who triumphed even while suffering from schizophrenia until finally he did not, and the story of his courageous surviving son Dean, who is also schizophrenic.
A blend of history, biography, memoir, and current affairs ending with a consideration of where we might go from here, this is a thought-provoking look at a dreaded illness that has long been misunderstood.
I should have liked this book. I wanted to like this book. I was a psych major in college and I’m very passionate about mental health. This book also delves into the history of mental health, including treatment and abuse in various contexts. That being said, I had a lot of issues with No One Cares About Crazy People.
First and foremost, the structure felt a bit meandering and messy. Powers goes off on tangents that aren’t really relevant to the subject matter and add nothing of value to the book. For example, at one point he pauses in telling a story about taking his sons to an amusement park to give the reader a little aside about the history of that park. What he was attempting to accomplish with this bit was beyond me.
But it also just feels like Powers is trying to do too much with this book. He delves into some of the medical knowledge about schizophrenia. He recounts anecdote after anecdote about mentally ill people being mistreated by medical professionals and law enforcement. He details the descent of both of his sons into madness as they developed schizophrenia, alongside chapters and chapters about their passion for music. (Including speculation as to how their creativity could have been linked to their illness, which felt like the same tired “tortured artist” spiel we’ve all heard too many times before. No, madness is not the cost of great art, and implying that it might be is harmful, because it discourages suffering artists from reaching out for help for fear they’ll “lose their creative spark.”) He gives a very detailed history lesson on psychology as a whole and the varying treatments (and mistreatment) to which the mentally ill have been subjected over the years.
All of the things mentioned in the prior paragraph are surely worthy subjects (with the exception of the whole tortured artist bit, of course), but they don’t feel tied together in any cohesive manner. The end result simply feels like… rambling.
Powers is also critical of the some of the modern day laws regarding the rights of mentally ill patients. Specifically, he seems to take great issue with the requirement that mentally ill patients show signs of being a danger to themselves or others before they can be involuntarily committed and medicated. He argues that at that point, for many patients, it is too late and the harm has already been done. Tragically, this often means suicide. Given the family history, this is an understandable sore spot, but Powers notably does not offer a better solution. The alternative is taking away the rights and bodily autonomy of anyone with a diagnosis, regardless of whether or not they show signs of being at risk. In his desire to protect the mentally ill from themselves, he seems alarmingly content to strip them of rights.
That being said, there were some strong points. Powers has clearly researched this topic exhaustively, and his attempt to impress upon the public the extent of the problem we are still facing is admirable. After deinstitutionalization, America’s jails became the de facto insane asylums, an issue which has never been resolved. Powers’ coverage of this topic is nuanced and well-researched. The most severely mentally ill are unable to advocate for themselves and thus most dependent on the public at large to do so for them. This book was, however flawed, an attempt at that advocacy.