Sons of Madness

Sons of Madness book cover

Growing Up and Older with a Mentally Ill Parent

Considering the huge numbers of people who have a mental illness, their suffering and lost potential, and the tremendous cost to society, it’s high time we made mental illness a priority. Instead, it continues to be a topic we avoid. Our mental health services are shamefully and sorely lacking. Those who suffer from mental illness are not being served, nor are their families.

I’ve written about this topic before at Books Can Save a Life when I’ve featured books about families with mental illness, particularly the plight of children and adult children with mentally ill parents. (See Children of Mental Illness Part I, Children of Mental Illness Part 2, Encountering the Dark Matter of Mental Illness, and Do Genes Affect Our Mental Health?) I grew up with a mother who had schizophrenia and, as I’ve conducted research for a memoir about our family’s experiences, I’m sad to say many aspects of the mental health system are no better than they were decades ago, and mental illness carries as much stigma today as it did in the 1960s.

Today, I’d like to highlight the newly published Sons of Madness: Growing Up and Older with a Mentally Ill Parent, by Susan Nathiel, PhD, LMFT. It’s a companion volume to her first book, Daughters of Madness: Growing Up and Older with a Mentally Ill Mother. Susan (whose mother had schizophrenia) has collected here interviews with twelve men whose mother or father suffered from schizophrenia, depression, bipolar disorder, or another serious mental illness.

These are deeply disturbing stories of men who in many cases have never talked about their families or their childhood and teen years. They were too ashamed and traumatized to reveal their family secrets, and they’ve never been asked. Consider these chapter titles: “Nobody cared until my family was destroyed,” “My mother’s lobotomy saved my life,” “If you leave the house, you’ll be murdered,” “Our family code: Protect Dad at all costs,” “I called them nightly shows – all violence,” and “I should have been able to save her.”  While it’s never easy having a mentally ill parent, boys and men are especially challenged by the cultural expectation that they not show their emotions.

Some of these men have healed, some have not, and all are scarred. I want to point out that most people with mental illness are not violent, but their families, including their children, must contend with a high degree of dysfunction that can be continual, extremely frightening, and traumatizing. It’s painful to read the words of these men, but what impressed me especially was their profound isolation as children. In many cases, it was impossible to get the mentally ill parent anywhere near a psychiatrist or treatment facility. Saddest of all is that extended family members and sometimes the healthy parent turned a blind eye to the needs of the children. No one helped them, and no one seemed to care.

I can’t fathom how children this neglected, with no support systems, encouragement, or empathy, can grow up to be healthy, trusting, fulfilled, and able to contribute their unique talents and gifts to society. Many do. But consider all the lost potential. I also wondered, as I read the interviews, where child abuse and addiction end and mental illness begins – my point being that I believe many children grow up contending, alone, with parents whose dysfunctions can cause lifelong damage and persist across generations, whether or not the parents are ever formally diagnosed with an identifiable mental illness.

There’s been some criticism of the many memoirs of family dysfunction that have been published in the last few decades, and accusations of whining and naval gazing. This only increases shame and makes those who’ve been affected hesitate to bring their experiences into the light of day, where solutions can be found and those who need it given relief and support.

We need to pay more attention to our children and the invisible traumas they may be contending with.

In his New York Time’s column today, Nicholas Kristof has identified mental illness as an issue that needs more attention. I hope you’ll add your thoughts about mental illness and families here in the comments or on Kristof’s blog, On the Ground.  You can also visit his Facebook page and leave a comment. I welcome comments about this on my Facebook page as well.

“Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.” Ian Maclaren, Scottish author and theologian

8 thoughts on “Sons of Madness”

  1. Hi! I just discovered you through searching for blogs that cover topics similar to mine, Crazy Good Parent. I publish a blog for parents who have mental illnesses. Mine is a positive, non-judging space where parents who have mental disorders can come for support, inspiration, connection and resources to help them become the best parents they can.

    I see the value in publishing the stories of children of mentally ill parents, but I also see the danger. If these are the only stories the public reads, then the myth of people with mental illness as violent and abusive is perpetuated. The lack of support for parents who are successfully parenting despite not being neurotypical is, in large part, why I started my blog. Though it’s relatively new, I’m proud of the guest bloggers who’ve appeared and lent their support.

    I choose a topic for each month of publication; this month’s topic is communication. I will be publishing a piece on talking with children out a parent’s mental illness. If you’d like to contribute a story about your own experience, I’d welcome it! I am also planning a month of posts devoted to children and their voices about having a neurodiverse parent.

    I hope you’ll pardon my blog promotion and will check out I think there are some interesting synergies between our two communities.

    1. I worry too about perpetuating myths about people with mental illness being violent or abusive. I’m glad you stopped by and I will check out your blog. It seems like all the way around, all parties involved don’t get the support and non-judging attitudes they deserve.
      I’m a medical librarian and don’t have a lot of time to do extra writing, but I’d be more than happy to do an interview type of thing if you have specific questions.

  2. Great piece… what you say is valuable, and needs to be said, just as sufferers need to be heard. Kindness is actually the answer, I feel, if there isn;’t love around….

  3. I agree totally that accusations of whining and naval gazing are not nice or helpful. My fear is that that there are so many of what are called over here “misery memoirs” that are being read as titillation – how I was abused as a child etc etc. We of course must encourage people to be open about their experiences but there is the feeling that these are in many way people jumping on a trend or bandwagon (like vampires or Harry Potter) and that the books won’t change people’s attitudes or help the victims who need help. It’s a very difficult subject and I would personally feel uncomfortable reading lots of books with records of abuse – I would feel prurient and intrusive and unable to help. Does just publishing another account (presumably from the point of the publishers, so that they can make money) actually get the victims the help they need?

    1. No, probably not. But there have been few memoirs, I believe, about children of mental illness, at least few good ones. It has to be good, well written literature to have an impact. I wouldn’t want to read scores of abuse memoirs either, and I’m not recommending that people do this. Just because you’ve experienced something doesn’t mean you should write about it and then publish.
      But there are scores of bad novels published, too. These novelists are not criticized in the same way that memoirists are.
      The act of writing helps the writer, and the work doesn’t necessarily have to be published.
      I think that memoir has come into its own, and we”ll probably continue to see a lot of memoir published, so we have to be discriminating, pick and choose what may speak to us.
      Anyway, this book isn’t memoir (as I know you know) – hearing the direct words of the adult children speaking is quite powerful and there aren’t many books like this one.

      1. Yes, I do take your point – and although what I said doesn’t apply to the book in question, I think I was just thinking aloud and more expressing concern that this kind of book will get buried under the rest. And certainly I think that bad novels should be criticised!!

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