Memoir and The Legacy of Mental Illness


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?


Are there Secrets in your Family?



My beautiful grandmother in her 30's




No one ever saw how my grandmother looked when she was upset—hair frizzed, lips caked with coffee stained lipstick, rage pouring from her eyes as she ranted and raved. Sometimes I would stand in front of her for two hours, afraid to move. I wondered if the neighbors heard her ranting, I found out years later that they had heard the shouting and the crying, but in the fifties what went on behind closed doors was considered no one’s business.


Besides, when people act irrationally, we feel ashamed. Maybe we feel responsible—could we have prevented the outburst? I worried about what I did or could do differently to keep her from getting angry again, but some of the time it was not about me—since we lived alone together, there was no one else to scream at but me.

Forty years later I realized that my grandmother must have had something wrong with her, and it would be on my mother’s deathbed that a diagnosis came forward—for her and my mother, who ranted and behaved irrationally too—“Bi-Polar.” Naming this monster that made these beautiful women in my life so angry and sad, that made them ugly and distorted was a huge relief. It helped me to forgive them and to have compassion for them—this naming. I wondered if they had been diagnosed earlier and had some medical help, if our lives could have been different.


My mother Josephine--mid-1950s


Many of you know about the research by Dr. James Pennebaker that carrying secrets puts a huge burden on the mind and the body.  We can release this burden and come to greater health through writing. I write about this in my book The Power of Memoir, and Victoria Costello, author of A Lethal Inheritance, is going to talk about it this Friday at our National Association of Memoir Writer’s member teleseminar.

Victoria combines her research and her own family experiences with mental illness in her book, and shares the stories with us—a very brave thing to do!

Here’s a link to the book review I wrote where you can read more about her book and her story. We are going to talk about the value of finding out about your family history as you write your memoir. I have done a lot of genealogical research both in dusty courthouses and at to try to unearth layers of secrets, chipping away at the burden I used to carry.

Do you have secrets that scare you? Have you tried writing them down—just for you?

How about family history research—have you done it, and has it helped you with your story?

Join me and Victoria:

March 16, 2012
11AM PDT; 12 MDT; 1 PM CDT; 2 PM EDT

Memoir Writing: Finding Your Way through Your Family History

Victoria Costello, Author of A Lethal Inheritance