News from the Mental Health Summit at the University of Chicago as well as the Chicago News Cooperative’s excellent coverage of mental health services cuts in Illinois in the pages of The New York Times coincided with my reading Australian writer Peter Kocan’s autobiographical novel, “Fresh Fields.”
In 1966, as a teenager, Kocan tried and, fortunately, failed, to assassinate Australian labor leader Arthur Calwell. Though he was found to be a borderline schizophrenic and sentenced to life in prison, most of which he spent in a mental hospital, he was pronounced cured and released from custody after ten years. He began writing in prison and is now an acclaimed writer, having received a number of literary awards as well as obtaining advanced degrees.
In “Fresh Fields,” Kocan depicts the descent of a fourteen-year-old loner into insanity. The youth, as the author refers to him throughout, didn’t seem fundamentally abnormal to me (though I’m no mental health expert). Rather, his mental unhinging seems to occur as a gradual result of his extremely limited socialization.
Kocan makes the dysfunctionality of the youth’s family clear in his first few paragraphs. The youth, his mother, and his younger brother are fleeing their home and the abusive Vladimir, who is his mother’s husband or partner and may or may not be the youth’s father. Kocan refers to the youth’s mother only as “the woman,” and she has no more than minimal dialogue and interaction with him. Though the youth is only around 15, his mother apparently doesn’t think it important for him to go to school. She pushes him to get a job and support himself, since she evidently can’t. He gets and loses a series of jobs due to his complete lack of experience and missteps that a more experienced and wiser person would never make. The hard knocks he’s gotten, coupled with the absence of any meaningful human relationship or social interaction, cause him to retreat into himself. He becomes increasingly obsessed and identifies with Diestl, a soldier character in a German movie about the aftermath of World War II who is alone, wounded, and bitter. By the end of the book, it’s clear that he’s going to explode.
“Fresh Fields” is the prequel to Kocan’s two novellas, “The Treatment” and “The Cure,” which I reviewed earlier on The Europa Challenge website. His stories and personal history, together with a number of articles I’ve written for the Illinois Bar Journal on mental health law, make me wonder to what extent isolation causes people to develop mental illness, or dementia. (From there, it’s a short step to wondering whether solitary confinement for misbehaving prisoners is ever a good idea.) If only more positive socialization were the answer for all who suffer; unfortunately, it’s clear that there are many other factors that cause or contribute to mental problems, some (but not all) of which can be alleviated by counseling, some (but not all) of which can be alleviated by drugs, and some (but not all) of which may be alleviated by more socialization.
You can read more about Kocan in Patrick Bryson’s paper, “Lunatics and the Asylum: Representations of ‘The Loner.’” We in the U.S. are not alone in having difficulty in funding and framing our mental health care system; see Inside Story for more about Australia’s mental health care problems. And NPR had a story recently about how to hold violent psychiatric patients accountable without punishing them for being sick.
Though it still carries a stigma, mental illness has touched most people’s lives. I admire Kocan and all those who are bringing their experiences out of the closet.