I spoke with Victoria Costello, author of A Lethal Inheritance at the National Association of Memoir Writers member teleseminar. about the legacy of mental illness.
Those of us who come from families with hidden or diagnosed mental illness feel “Other,” the ghosts of our legacies chasing us in our dreams, making us shrink down in our waking life.
In my memoir Don’t Call Me Mother, I talk about beautiful women who have a pattern of leaving their children behind, beautiful women who scream and rage irrationally, but who are just thought of as eccentric or different. As a child, of course this is “just the way it is.” After my mother’s terminal diagnosis of cancer, she tormented the nurses so much that her doctor ordered a psychiatric evaluation. That’s when she was diagnosed as Bi-Polar, that’s when behavior that was cruel, irrational, and off-the-wall finally got a name.
In her informative and teeth-clenching memoir, Victoria does a brave thing: she combines her considerable scientific research about the causes and treatments of mental illness—the history of and the current state of treatment—with her own family’s case study—the story of herself and her children. She makes an excellent point with this book—that no matter how much we know or how smart we are, there are mysterious forces in life that blindside us, that bring us to our knees. Mental illness does that to families, and worse—it’s often a hidden illness shrouded in ignorance, guilt, and shame, and often a secret even from the sufferers themselves.
As ubiquitous as mental illness is in our society, too often diagnoses are incorrect or non-existent when, if properly understood, lives could be saved and immense suffering prevented. Since funding has consistently been cut for programs that include treatment for the mentally ill, too often treatment even for adolescents is non-existent, leaving people to fall upon impossible conditions—living on the street and/or families trying to help someone who is beyond their help or expertise. And for families like Victoria’s, once the child is of age, the parents no longer have any power to insist on medication or treatment, even if it were available. Since the teen years are when children are more vulnerable to the onset of mental illness, it stands to reason that the child might not be out of danger when they become of age and have to make their own decisions. One of the frustrating aspects of trying to deal with the mentally ill is that they believe that they are either fine or all-powerful, when in fact their thinking and perceiving are distorted. What a nightmare for any family member.
A Lethal Inheritance also points us toward the need to understand and research the genetic and genealogical backgrounds in our own families. In her family as in mine, mental illness, mostly undiagnosed or misdiagnosed, has planted seeds in later generations, the societal, biological, genetic, and psychological factors all aligned for a perfect storm. Victoria’s book is easy to read, despite the intensity of the material. Perhaps it’s because she weaves the cool-headed research in with her often painful story. It’s a success story too—told by someone who knows the journey and can help you on yours.
Is this subject part of your story in some way?
Have you ever looked into your family legacy and found secrets that explain things? What was that like for you?