For the Mentally Ill, It’s Worse

Last week, one of the landmark nonfiction books of the last 50 years was reissued by Vintage Books. “Is There No Place on Earth for Me?” by Susan Sheehan began in 1981 as a four-part series in The New Yorker; in 1982, it came out as a book, winning the Pulitzer Prize.

“Is There No Place on Earth for Me?” is about a woman who suffers from severe schizophrenia. In the book, Sheehan calls her “Sylvia Frumkin,” a pseudonym meant to protect her privacy; her real name was Maxine Mason, which Sheehan divulged after Mason died, at the age of 46, in 1994. She was overweight and overbearing, a difficult person even in the best of times, but also, Sheehan told me recently, “bright and articulate” — when she wasn’t delusional. The book’s title was a question Mason “had first asked her mother in an ambulance transporting her from one hospital to another in 1964,” as Sheehan wrote in an essay published after Mason’s death. (It is included as a postscript to the new edition.) Mason was 16 at the time.

I have no idea what moved Vintage Books to republish “Is There No Place on Earth for Me?” but I’m glad it did. The story Sheehan tells is a terribly sad one, and not just because of the flashes Mason shows of what she might have become if she had not suffered from mental illness. It is also appalling to see what she goes through as a mental patient: the hospitals that overmedicate; the misdiagnoses by doctors after the briefest of examinations; the lack of any kind of safety net when she is not hospitalized. But here’s the worst part: Even though the story Sheehan tells is more than 30 years old, there is only one real difference between then and now for the mentally ill. It’s worse today.

by Joe Nocera, The New York Times

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