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by Jean J. Beard, Peggy Gillespie and Gigi Kaeser
New Press, 2002
Review by Christian Perring, Ph.D. on Sep 3rd 2003

Nothing to Hide

Nothing to Hide: Mental Illness in the Family is a collection of interviews and photographs of families in which one or more have experienced mental illness, and the aim of the book is to be open about these experiences to show that there is nothing shameful about them.  There is a foreword by Kay Redfield Jamison, a ringing endorsement on the front cover by Andrew Solomon, author of the award-winning The Noonday Demon, and more strong endorsements on the back from Lesley Stahl, co-editor of 60 Minutes and Jay Neugeboren, author of the wonderful memoir Imaging Robert.  The book is large-format and nearly 300 pages, and it tells the stories of 44 families.  The families vary in size from one person to large groups.  All are American, but they are from a wide range of ethnic groups and they range from the very young to the old.  Some of the interviewees are very eloquent in describing how they have coped with the illness in their families, and they are all very supportive and loving, without minimizing the difficulty of the challenges they have faced.

Since there is still a great deal of stigma attached to mental illness, any attempt to fight the stigma is worth encouraging.  So I feel rather guilty in my unenthusiastic reaction to this book.  The aims of the authors are entirely admirable and their hard work in collecting the interviews deserves praise.  The black and white photographs are of high quality and show their subjects in a good light.  Reading a few families stories is interesting and even moving.  However, reading more than a few becomes hard work because all the stories start to blur together.  After reading many, I started to feel that the concept would work better as a radio or TV show or a documentary, or even as a performance by actors.  Then you would hear or see the people speaking their words, and you would get a much better understanding of the emotions behind their words.  The bare words on the page with no other information about the person who spoke them are emotionally flat. 

As I read through the book I started to question who exactly would want to read it and what good it might do.  In the introduction, Kenneth Duckwood wonders how the book might have changed his life if it has been available when he was a child and his father developed manic-depressive illness.  Duckwood went on to become a psychiatrist.  I wondered what difference the book might have made in my family, in which there has been a good deal of diagnosed mental illness and undiagnosed eccentric and self-destructive behavior.  It is hard for me to imagine that such a book would have made an iota of difference to our dysfunctional relationships, and in that respect, I don't think our family was very different from most others.  For one thing, I don't imagine that anyone in our family would have been ever tempted to buy the book in the first place, and if they had, everyone else would have wondered why they had done so.  Our family, like many if not most, almost never discussed mental illness, and a book of interviews and photographs would have not had the power to change that. 

Maybe times have changed since the 1960s and 1970s, and with the lessening stigma of mental illness, it is possible that such interventions have more chance of changing people's attitudes.  It's also likely that there are wide cultural differences between different groups.  I grew up in the UK, and until I moved to the US in my mid-twenties I never met anyone who was open about being in psychotherapy, let alone taking psychotropic medication apart from tranquilizers or sleeping pills.  It may be that in many parts of American culture, with long traditions of being open about one's personal problems, there is more possibility of being open about mental illness.  It's also possible that some readers will find inspiration in these relatively short interviews, because obviously different readers are able to find very different sorts of tests personally useful.  When I watch TV shows such as Oprah and Dr. Phil featuring ordinary people talking about their personal problems, I generally find the show's treatment of the subject superficial and manipulative, but the viewing figures for these shows suggest that millions of people must find the stories uplifting.  While Nothing to Hide contains only short interviews and so only scratches the surface of people's lives, it is not at all manipulative, and it is entirely possible that many readers will find its stories inspiring as well. 

Some of the interviews are longer and go into more depth.  Paul Gottlieb, who has had a very successful career in the publishing industry, talks for seven pages about his experience of depression and its role in his life.  In the Johnson family, Pearl describes how she has been in and out of prison for fifty-one years, and how she has lived with mental illness all of her life.  Her daughters also describe their experience of mental illness, prostitution and jail.  In the Frese family, Fred Frese explains how he was diagnosed with schizophrenia at the age of 25 and recovered well enough to become Director of Psychology at Western Reserve Psychiatric Hospital in Ohio.  His wife Penny talks about her husband's illness and her four children's encounters with depression.  Even these longer interviews however are very brief compared to a memoir, and really it is only in a book length approach that is going to reveal any of the complexity and richness of a person's life and the challenge of facing mental illness.  So ultimately I would recommend that even those who do find Nothing to Hide rewarding, it is worth the effort to read memoirs and even some novels if one wants to get a real sense of what is it like for individuals and families to live with serious psychiatric disorders. 

 

© 2003 Christian Perring. All rights reserved.

Christian Perring, Ph.D., is Chair of the Philosophy Department at Dowling College, Long Island, and editor of Metapsychology Online Review.  His main research is on philosophical issues in medicine, psychiatry and psychology.