Tess Evans is able to look inside the minds of people as she writes. How else could she be so good at writing about emotions and feelings? And that is what her book, The Memory Tree and her previous book, The Book of Lost Threads is all about; people and their healing. Here’s Tess:
Reflections from under a table:
Nervous breakdown. My mother and aunt spoke these words in hushed tones. ‘Poor X. she’s had a nervous breakdown.’ They didn’t see me behind the long cloth, under the table, in my usual eavesdropping possie. Another one! It seemed that lots of women had nervous breakdowns in those days. Today we’d refer to ‘post-natal depression’ and we speak the words openly and with a more informed compassion.
Shell-shock. War nerves. This described returned servicemen who often coped with their war-time experiences by drinking and violence or withdrawal from their families. It’s called Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder now and covers a wide range of symptoms from mild to extreme.
Lunacy, mania, madness. Schizophrenia, paranoid schizophrenia, bipolar disorder – the names become more accurate but is naming enough? These new words are clinical, and while accurate in that sense, they give the layperson little understanding of the reality. Words are not merely clinical descriptors but vessels of understanding and it can sometimes take many words, even a story, to express all we need to know.
Some years ago, I was involved in writing a curriculum for caregivers and learned things I had never really understood, like the difference between psychological and psychiatric illness; between intellectual and psychiatric disability; how to recognise depression; the effects of anti-psychotic drugs… the list was long, I’m ashamed to say.
But probably the most important thing I learned from my research, was to separate the illness from the person. So, instead of saying that someone was ‘a schizophrenic,’ I learned to say that Mel, or Joe or Stavros suffered from schizophrenia. For me, this was not an exercise in semantics or grammar. It was a recognition that moved me from the hushed tones of my mother’s generation to a new understanding.
‘The Memory Tree’ is the story of Hal Rodriguez, a good man– certainly a man who tried to be good. He is mentally ill, probably suffering from paranoid schizophrenia and during a psychotic episode, he commits a terrible crime. The problem for those who love him is to separate the crime from the man; the evil wrought by the illness from the loving father and friend.
A common phrase among clergy is ‘Hate the sin; love the sinner.’ This is used in some dubious cases, for example, to justify treatment of homosexuals, but even Pastor Godown Moses, never sees Hal as a sinner, because the word ‘sin’ implies intention. Hal is the good man who is impelled to do something evil because of some physiological activity in his brain. He had no more control over this impulse than a cancer patient has over his or her tumour.
The tumour, the mental illness must be treated, and Grace, the narrator acknowledges that if Hal had been born later, when his family could have faced the facts, when the words could have been said, when treatment was more accessible, he may have been medicated sufficiently to control the symptoms of his disease.
Or would he? Possibly. We come to know Hal’s family and I’m sure that they would have given him a lot of support. He had money and could afford private care if necessary. But what if that wasn’t enough? What if he was one of those who slip through the cracks? Who end up living rough? Who stray in and out of the system in a scandalously unsystematic way? I’m not sure. As Grace notes, there have been improvements over time, but still no guarantees.
In ‘The Memory Tree’, Hal’s son, Zav, a Vietnam veteran, suffers from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder which is partly manifested by depression. His sister, Sealie and some ex-army friends support him until he finds the strength he needs to live his life. A number of studies suggest that those who came home from military service in Vietnam to a strong family group who or kept in touch with army mates, tended to fare better than others. Zav’s mates, too, have their problems, but offer support to their more traumatised comrade. The old war-time phrase ‘carrying our wounded’ is an apt description for what happens here.
So in the case of those suffering from mental illness, society should be able to help families ‘carry their wounded.’ With family and friend’s support, with proper medical care, many live lives that can sometimes be difficult, but always worthwhile.
‘The Memory Tree’ is fiction but I hope it generates discussion and thought and some empathy for Hal, Zav and those who care for them. And if we have a little laugh on the way, it’s not because we don’t empathise, but because we do.
For more info on this book, click here.