“Voice for the Mad” Mark W. Harris

 March 3, 2013 – First Parish of Watertown


Call to Worship – “Faith” by Czeslaw Milosz


Faith is in you whenever you look

At a dewdrop or a floating leaf

And know that they are because they have to be.

Even if you close your eyes and dream up things

The world will remain as it has always been

And the leaf will be carried by the waters of the river.


You have faith also when you hurt your foot

Against a sharp rock and you know

That rocks are here to hurt our feet.

See the long shadow that is cast by the tree?

We and the flowers throw shadows on the earth.

What has no shadow has no strength to live.


Reading – from “My Tears See More Than My Eyes” by Alan Shapiro


When I got home, I read straight through the journal. I could tell from the handwriting—so wild and jagged with the ghost of erased lines hovering behind and between the lines he kept—that Nat had done most of the writing at night, in secret, with his contraband pencil. On some pages there were fragments of phrases, new words he’d learned that day from the black kids on the ward (“New word DOLLARS = friends”), transcriptions of dreams, poems x-ed out, under which in one case he scrawls: “I don’t wanna continue—this rhyme sucks anyways.” In his conversations with me Nat denied having any problems severe enough to justify hospitalization; in the poems, though, he speaks directly and unflinchingly about his misery and his wanting not to live. . . . For him, poetry was and is the place of truth telling. The most stunning expression of his despair came in one of the later poems. Underneath it, he wrote a note : . . . “dad when you read this one you have to read the rhyming parts like you’re in a panic, and then read the last line as if your son died right then and there.”


Body’s weakening,
Heart’s beating
Too fast
For it to last.
I feel a blast
Of death
Running through my breath . . .

My tears see more than my eyes . . .

. . . —the way . . .  two rhyming couplets frame . . . the panicky triple rhyme of fast-last-blast—does represent a kind of victory over pain, however momentary; at the very least it enables me to think some part of his imagination is holding together what he otherwise experiences as falling apart. [But], the switch in point of view from desperate child to grieving father in the last line refuses any . . .  separation between the personal and the artistic. . . . Of course Nat, . . .  was [ keenly]  aware . . .  the suffering his suffering was causing all of us, his father especially. Their mutual suffering connects son to father, on the one hand; but on the other, that connection only deepens the pain that both father and son experience, since it cannot save the child. . . .


Where there is suffering, which is to say, where there is human life, there is art. But art doesn’t merely mirror the bad things that happen to us. It shapes what happens into meaning. And there is always great joy and pleasure, even happiness, in the fundamental human act of shaping. . . .


In his poems, Nat confronts his situation and also resists it or momentarily transcends it. He becomes a maker, not just a sufferer. . . He may write about extreme depression, but there’s nothing depressed about the writing. In his poems he may even say he wants to die, but the vitality with which he says this contradicts the very thing he says. . . Writing a good poem about how bad you feel doesn’t protect you from that feeling or release you from it. My only point is that the mental energy that Nat’s poetry embodies and enacts is healthy, life affirming (whatever else may be at work inside him), and not just for the writer, or the desperate son, but for the reader, too, the desperate, if hopeful, father.




Some years ago a movie called “The King of Hearts” became a cult classic. It is a movie about a young British soldier, who involuntarily volunteers to go into a town in northern France and defuse bombs that the Germans have planted to blow up the town. The character is an ornithologist who reads Shakespeare to his carrier pigeons.   He is a little confused as to why he was selected to sacrifice his life, and says they probably could have used someone from ordinance (not ornithology) who knew what they were doing. As soon as he is in the town, he wanders into the lunatic asylum. Once the Germans encounter this group of unstable people, the smattering of  troops who are still in the town run away in a panic thinking that mental illness is contagious. Eventually Plumpick, the British soldier is able to defuse the bombs, but only after the insane warn their new King of Hearts  that the countryside is full of wild beasts with “murder in their hearts.”  In the meantime, he has been declared a hero, and is commissioned to go off to blow up some Germans at the front.  Confronted with these choices, he deserts.  He rejects the real insanity of war, sheds all his clothing, and rings the bell to the asylum. He wants in.

Billed as an anti-war film, the viewer might construe the film to mean that the truly sane people in the world are the so-called insane ones who are committed to the asylum. While this is a rather romantic and unrealistic view of mental illness, it at least gives it some positive, humane frame of reference, as opposed to a culture which applies negative stigmas like those German soldiers. Historically, mental illness was equated with evil.  We see this in such Biblical stories as the famous one in the Gospel of Mark,  where Jesus travels to the country of the Gerasenes. A possessed man comes to meet him and the disciples. Mark tells us that the man has resisted attempts to chain him up. He roamed the tombs and hills screaming. The man falls at Jesus’s feet and begs Jesus not to harm him. He expects the worst. Jesus asks him what his name is and he replies, “My name is Legion…for we are many”.  The evil spirit is miraculously transferred to a herd of pigs that rush into the lake and drown.  The man is healed of his disease, but Jesus is asked to leave town.  The townspeople prefer their mentally ill to remain as they are.  The man wants to follow Jesus, but he tells him to go home and declare the glory of God.  While this ending may seem naïve, too, it does tell us what can happen when we hear that mental illness is everywhere: my name is legion. It isn’t just about war or asylums.  There are people who live day to day and worry with anxious fright about that depression or delirium within. As Emily Dickinson wondered, “And Something’s odd —within – That person that I was – And this One – do not feel the same – Could it be Madness – this?

If you walk among the silent graves and tombs of Mt. Auburn Cemetery, you will see a single, simple stone with one name – Dorothea Dix. No other person in American history did more to try to help people realize the extent of mental illness than Dorothea Dix, who became known as the “Voice for the Mad.”  When I conduct one of my UU tours of Mt Auburn, as I will do in May, we always include her grave. Dix once wrote, “I never had a childhood.”  Growing up in Maine with an alcoholic father and depressed and bed-ridden mother, she finally ran away to Boston, where her grandmother lived. Here she became a teacher, and met William Ellery Channing the great Unitarian leader, and other reformers who taught that love must be extended to all people, including prisoners.  In March 1841, almost 175 years ago,  a young seminarian found he could not fulfill his assignment of teaching twenty women convicts.  He felt he couldn’t understand the plight of prostitutes, thieves and alcoholics.  Dix went in his place, and shared a lesson about Mary Magdalene, and they sang a hymn.  They asked her to come again, but then on an impulse, she asked to see the rest of the prison. She was talking to some of the prisoners, when she heard a blood-curdling scream.  “What was that?” She said.  “Just one of the mad ‘uns, ma’am.  There’s no keepin’ em quiet.”  “You mean there are insane people in the jail?”  “Always a few, but we keep ‘em shut up proper.”  After she asked about lunatic asylums, she was told those were for people who could pay.  She then asked to be taken to these other invisible prisoners.  The sight she beheld was hideous.  Half naked, the mentally ill were left virtually forgotten. They had little food.  There was no stove for heat, because it was said they would burn themselves, and besides they had no feelings, and did not know hot from cold.  In another room she found women screaming in cages.  She vowed that day that changes would be made.  At first it was food and blankets, but in time it was legislative action.

Dix began a campaign that would last for years. First she told fellow Unitarians Samuel Gridley Howe, the educator and Charles Sumner, the Senator, and publicity followed.  Until Dorothea Dix came along no one cared about the mentally ill.  They were evil.  Had no feelings. Let them live in the tombs. Dix vowed to visit every place where the mentally ill were housed in Massachusetts, and she did.  A bill to establish a state hospital in Worcester was passed.  Soon she moved on to New York, Rhode Island and Connecticut.  Then she kept going further and further to the south and west.  She continued to find people in chains, neglected and abused.  She came to understand that private charity was not enough, and that pubic taxation must provide buildings and staff to care for the mentally ill.  She declared that it was the responsibility of all citizens to care for those who needed help.  Then she went abroad.  In Scotland, they called her an angel of mercy.  She even went to the Vatican for an audience with the Pope.  Finally, in 1861, back in America, she could declare, “All my bills have passed.”  She then proceeded to organize women to serve as Army nurses in the Civil War. This was arranged directly with Abraham Lincoln.

Lincoln knew his own share of sorrows from mental illness. In 1841 when his engagement was broken and his best friend moved, Lincoln had entered a severe depression. No one understood the causes of mental illness, but Lincoln called himself “the most miserable man living.”  Yet he was able to somehow adapt to the stresses of his life.  He did not gain freedom from anxiety or depression, but found ways to cope.  He was always open to the future, and this alone gave him hope that he could deal with his malaise.

In Lincoln’s time, the new way to deal with mental illness was the establishment of a state hospital system.  In our time this has come to be viewed as an inhumane system of social control.  Yet the freedom offered by community based services is false  because treatment and housing often don’t materialize. In fact, many of the mentally ill have ended up in a situation not dissimilar to a modern version of what Dorothea Dix encountered.  They end up in prison or are sick and hungry on the streets.  While the mentally ill are free to be mentally ill, the society is free to do nothing.  The courts can frustrate parents with these freedoms, because the parents who would love and care for their adult children are denied information because of privacy laws. This can destroy the mental health of the parents who have all the worry, and no authority. Sometimes the use of medications is labeled a means of social control, too, but I know from personal experience that medications can save lives.  People with mental health issues, like all people, need help, and we as a community can help by listening and providing support and places to be heard.  Most of us have experience with mental health issues either in our lives, or in the lives of family members, some in more public ways than others.  But in community it is not merely about caring for people and giving them the space to be themselves, it is about all of us living up to our responsibilities and respecting others.  It is about encouraging people to get help when they need it, too.

In December, as you all know, there was a terrible shooting at an elementary school in Newtown, CT.  The primary response to that shooting was a broad based national discussion about violence and gun control.  Today I am not going to call out the NRA or talk about the political climate. Sure gun violence is terrible, but people’s lives are also on the line because of the silence over mental health issues.  A controversial editorial called, “I am Adam Lanza’s Mother,” chronicles one mother’s suffering with mental illness in her family.  How many of us wondered about Adam Lanza’s family?  Why did the media not list his mother, his first victim, as a victim?  Why were we so quick to blame her?  Why didn’t he get help?  How much silence do you suppose there was about his alleged mental illness in the community?  Who knows wonderful, smart kids who suddenly go off?

In the case of Newtown, most of us were probably saying, My, God can you imagine what it would feel like to be a parent of one of those little kids?  Awful, a gnawing grief the rest of your life.  Now, what would it be like to be Adam Lanza’s mom?  What was every day before she was shot and killed like? Not knowing, scared, wondering what to do, how to get help. While we may rush to the suffering victims with our empathy, what about our empathy for the other victims, for the parents, for Lanza himself who lived with some kind of mental illness, of which we know very little. What about the Lauren Astley murder trial in Wayland?  Nathaniel Fujita obviously did not suffer one brief psychotic break, as his lawyers suggest.  He suffered from mental illness that was either unnoticed, or when it was, no one tried to get him help, or couldn’t bring themselves to say he needed help. Or what about Amy Bishop, who killed her brother in Braintree, and then years later shot up much of the biology faculty of the University of Alabama. Fujita used his hands and a knife, and Bishop had a handgun in her purse. The lawyer in her case said, there are people in our community who are walking time bombs.  Lanza, Fujita, Bishop.  A girlfriend, a job, something happens that didn’t work out and it brings out an uncontrolled rage. Bishop’s mother who witnessed the killing of her son by her daughter said, “She was a good, good girl.  We lived a decent life.”   It was mental illness.  Shouldn’t we talk about it?   Now that Fujita is on trial, his family is. Why not earlier?

Why are we so quick to identify with the parents of the little children, and not the perpetrators. They could be us, too.  My family had guns.  My father kept two shotguns in his bedroom.  We lived way out in the country, and the alleged reason to have the guns was two fold.  First, they would protect us if someone tried to break in.  I can imagine my Dad in a whiskey based, fog induced state defending us with weapons.  That would have been bad.  The second reason was for hunting.  I shot a weapon in anticipation of being the big game hunter, like my friends.  But it wasn’t for me. What about the mental illness factor? There were no diagnoses, but I witnessed an uncontrolled rage, self medicated with alcohol.  Our family had smart ones, too. We lived a decent life.  But there it was all around us.  OCD for one.  Bipolar for another. Mental illness wears many guises in many forms, and is all around us.  Some is more public, and some is unspoken of for fear of shame or ridicule.  But there are many among us living with mental illness, who should not feel shame.  Too often nobody wants to say anything, but when there is no diagnosis, or the illness is not treated or comes out in violence, then the conversation must begin again.  It is not guns in Newtown, but mental illness that needs to be talked about.

Right now at the Belmont movie theater, there is a wonderful movie about mental illness called “Silver Linings Playbook.”  It is Hollywood, so there is a little bit of the romantic view that I saw in “King of Hearts.”  Yet I was rooting strongly that this couple in the movie, Pat and Tiffany, both of who suffered from mental illness would get together.  In fact I kept saying to myself as I watched, please give me hope.  Part of that hope comes from the fact that the movie exists, and thereby helps us talk about families and individuals that struggle with mental illness every day.  How can people get help?

Too often today, the stigma of mental illness is with those mass shootings where the killer is always labeled “bipolar and violent.”  The reality is many families struggle, and those with mental illness are far more likely to be victims than assailants. As the director said, “we are all grappling with something. I wanted to show that we’re all in this together.”  But it is no simple love story.  Pat is volatile. Home from the mental hospital, he is trying to improve his mind by reading, but the unhappy ending of Hemingway’s A Farewell To Arms, makes him throw the book out the window, smashing it at 4:00 a.m.  Pat says he is not going to apologize to his parents because Hemingway has disappointed him while he was rooting for the guy in the book to come home from the war and be reunited with his girl. He suggests to his father that if he wants an apology for waking him up, he is not going to get it, but rather that “Hemingway guy himself ought to apologize.”  The ending of  “Silver Linings Playbook” may seem too happy for the reality of mental illness, as we know another bad day will come round.  While love may not cure all, Pat and Tiffany find joy at least for now.  Pat follows his own mantra “To stay positive, and then you have a shot at a silver lining.”

We know finding a silver lining is not always possible, but making mental illness part of a public discourse will help remove it from the shadows, and the shame some families and individuals feel.  Staying positive means getting as much help as we can for those who need it, and helping ourselves. The author of the novel Silver Linings Playbook, Matthew Quick says there is a silver lining to having mental illness.  He says the way some brains are wired creates problems, but that wiring can also produce beautiful things.  This is what Alan Shapiro points to in our reading.  One message that we need to remind ourselves of is that, like the person who met Jesus, the names of those who suffer from mental illness is legion.  For those legions, answers do not always come quickly or easily.  It is complex suffering in trying to figure out medications, therapy, and even hospitalizations. In addition to ending the silence, and naming the stigmas attached to mental illness, there is also much advocacy to be done, especially in our broken health care system. Alan Shapiro reminds us of the stark reality of a desperate father and a suffering son. Yet perhaps in sequences of time, some longer than others, suffering can be transformed into lyrical words that transcend pain and speak of beauty, and a search for wholeness, and community and love.  Like Abraham Lincoln with his depression, no matter what mental pain you feel, you’ve got to keep moving forward, you’ve got to believe in yourself, and leave the way open for future growth.  You’ve got to find and believe in some silver lining.



Closing Words –  “The Journey” by Mary Oliver

One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
kept shouting
their bad advice —
though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
“Mend my life!”
each voice cried.
But you didn’t stop.
You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations,
though their melancholy
was terrible.
It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.
But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do —
determined to save
the only life you could save.