My initial intent for this week’s blog was to discuss how mental illness has been portrayed over the years in films. I had viewed a good number of these movies, which often depicted the horrific conditions in state hospitals or asylums, as part of my ongoing research for my first novel. My short list of these films included Frances, about the unfortunate life of actress Frances Farmer; The Snake Pit, a ground breaking film about mental illness; and the documentary Titicut Follies, which revealed the poor conditions of a state hospital in Massachusetts and which led to some much needed reforms.
The film which I found most impactful was One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. One of the reasons I admire this film is Jack Nicholson’s Academy Award winning performance as Randle Patrick McMurphy. The main reason I like the film, however, is how it stays true to Ken Kesey’s novel. It is a rare feat for a film to capture the true essence of a great novel. Cuckoo’s Nest and The Godfather are rare exceptions. Another film starring Nicholson is a prime example of how films fall short in retaining the spirit of its original content. William Kennedy’s novel Ironweed won the Pulitzer Prize and despite his adapting it to the screen, the film fails in its efforts to retain the book’s essence.
As some of you may know, I loosely based my first novel A Bold & Brazen Article on my real life experiences growing up without my father who was institutionalized for mental illness. One of the true events depicted in my novel occurred during my senior year at Father Judge High School in 1976. We were reading Cuckoo’s Nest for my psychology class. Despite the fact that I believed at the time that my father was residing in a private and more humane institution, this novel created much anxiety in me about my father’s well-being. In the spring of that year, our teacher announced a field trip to Byberry State Hospital in Northeast Philadelphia. State-run Byberry had a bad reputation for horrific conditions and its harsh and inhumane treatment of its patients. My mother tried to dissuade me from going as she thought it might prove too upsetting, but I insisted on going.
At that time in my life, I figured I could face and handle anything. After all, hadn’t my teammates on my football team awarded me a trophy for being the most inspirational player only a few years before? (My coach had said it was really for having the biggest balls on the team, but said they couldn’t print that on the trophy). The reason I had gotten the award was because I had ended up starting at guard and middle linebacker despite being four years younger and forty pounds lighter than most of my teammates.
On the morning of the field trip, my mother stopped me as I was literally walking out the door. She informed me that my dad had been transferred to Byberry five years before after his insurance had run out. I made a life altering decision and told her I was still going.
In my novel, I relate how the main character writes a “bold & brazen article” for his high school newspaper about how much he appreciated how his so-called friends mocked the patients that day. He also informs them that his father is a patient there. Unfortunately, that part of my novel is pure fiction.
I wish I had had that kind of courage back then to do what my protagonist did. Instead, I made another momentous decision that day, which was to never feel again, while simultaneously discovering the numbing effects of alcohol. That choice would haunt me for the next twenty-five years. It was only when I got sober almost twenty years ago that I was able to face life once again and experience all of its challenges, pains, and pleasures. But that’s a topic for another time, and maybe the grist for another novel.