Mad House: Growing Up in the Shadow of Mentally Ill Siblings

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9780140274349: Mad House: Growing Up in the Shadow of Mentally Ill Siblings

In classic books such as Girl, Interrupted and When Rabbit Howls, the mentally ill depict their own harrowing worlds. In Mad House we have an account of the devastating effects of mental illness on the lives of those who share their world?the healthy siblings of those afflicted. Clea Simon was shattered when her older brother, Daniel, a freshman at Harvard, began hearing voices, making it impossible for him to function. He later committed suicide. Schizophrenia next claimed her sister, Katherine, who has moved from one institution to another after refusing any help from her family. Simon, who spoke with hundreds of other siblings of the mentally ill and with experts in the field, confronts the issues healthy siblings face, from guilt (Why do I deserve to be okay?) to fear (Will illness claim me or my children next?) to anger at being neglected by parents overwhelmed by the needs of the mad child. Part memoir, part practical guide, Mad House is a compelling and compassionate book destined to help many people come to terms, as Simon has, with the unique pain of living with a sibling?s mental illness.

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Review:

Tales of family dysfunction have become so commonplace that a postcard witticism suggests that a conference for children of functional families would be sparsely attended. Certainly Clea Simon, whose two older siblings were gripped by schizophrenia in their teens, wouldn't be there. She lays out a bleak, affecting story of growing up in a family where the spotlight necessarily shone on the insistent dissociations of a brother she remembers as once gentle and brilliant and a sister whose screeching, violent terrors sent young Simon scrambling for safety. Cogent explanations of mental illness and slices of therapy interweave with Simon's stories and those of similarly besieged families and siblings who must dismantle huge emotional barricades in order to live fully as adults. Sometimes this mix is uneasy, such as when a professionally cool distance too swiftly replaces the white heat of painful memories.

From the Publisher:

When the Boston Globe first published Clea Simon's cover story on growing up with her two schizophrenic siblings, the response was overwhelming. "Healthy" siblings constitute that silent majority of people who have grown up in dysfunctional families and, largely due to their age have often stood on the sidelines as the tragic consequences of a mental disorder claimed either the health or life of a brother or sister. For Clea Simon, the experience was shattering as first her beloved, older brother Daniel, the brilliant Harvard freshman started hearing voices and dropping out of school when his schizophrenia made functioning impossible. And then again as the same illness claimed her sister Althea, who has bounced around from one state institution to another after her parents eventually gave up on helping the daughter who refused their help.

The issues "well" siblings face run the gamut from guilt (why do I deserve to be OK?), fear (what are the chances that I have this disease, or that my children may inherit it?), to the burden of caring for a sibling (am I my brother's keeper?), and overcompensating in the family, or its converse, acting destructively to get attention. In talking to hundreds of other siblings and experts in the field, Simon has written a comprehensive book that combines the best of memoir writing with the kind of practical advice that should ease the pain of any brother or sister who has felt helpless in the face of a sibling's mental illness.

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