Before I begin….yes, I know, I know, it has been a while between posts. I blame the ‘flu for giving me a fuzzy head these past few weeks (that and the fact I am working my way through The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton.…hmmm!). Oh and the tragic loss of dear Rik didn’t help either.
Anyway….here’s the new review. Enjoy!
Shot in the Head: A Sister’s Memoir, a Brother’s Struggle is first time author Katherine Flannery Dering’s account of a family grappling with a diagnosis of serious mental illness. Dering’s brother Paul was diagnosed with severe schizophrenia as a young man and then, devastatingly in his later life, was diagnosed with lung cancer. In this memoir, Dering has succeeded in sensitively telling her brother’s story in an uplifting way, despite the two serious illnesses he faced during his lifetime.
Dering begins her story with an account of childhood, one that involved international travel, adventure and glamour. Her father was a ‘car company executive who was going places’, (including Sweden, where Dering spent some of her childhood). It was a charmed existence for the family for many years, complete with European travel and a live-in au pair to support the large crew (Dering was one of 10 children).
But their fortunes turned after Dering’s father was retrenched, forcing the family back to the United States. Then in 1976 Paul, Dering’s ‘baby’ brother, was diagnosed with schizophrenia after his first psychotic episode. Not only were the symptoms of Paul’s illness incredibly frightening, but the impact on Paul was life-long.
In this memoir, Dering skillfully weaves together the story of her own life (as a business woman, mother, writer and sister) along with her memories of family life and of her relationship with Paul. The details of Paul’s journey with schizophrenia, including treatment – firstly in an institution and then within the community – and his day-to-day life is eye-opening reading.
A primary theme throughout this memoir is the special relationship between Dering and her brother. As his much older sister, she helped care for Paul when he was a baby – she fed him, played with him, even changed his nappies. Her love for Paul is a constant and gentle undercurrent through the entire book. Yet despite this love, Dering is not overly sentimental about the challenges their relationship faced – she is honest about how tough it was a times. She recalls that visiting Paul was sometimes frightening due to his erratic behaviors and odd comments, that the management of his care, particularly after the passing of her mother, was a challenge.
Comments and Analysis
I applaud Dering for her courage to write about such a personal issue and to be honest about her experiences. Life is hard. It is even harder when you have a family member who has a serious mental illness – an illness that brings with it unfair stigmatization and generalizations. Add a diagnosis of cancer into the mix and you have a very tough situation indeed.
Balanced accounts like Shot in the Head are vital tools for ‘health consumers’ (i.e. Paul, his family and carers) to have a voice in a system where it is sometimes hard to be heard, a way to share their valid and unique insights into mental illness treatment. In sharing her own experiences, Dering’s account should offer some comfort to others in a similar situation.
Shot in the Head is also valuable in raising awareness about the correlation between psychotic illnesses (like schizophrenia) and the incidences of lung cancer. Researchers have acknowledged the increased rate of smoking in individuals with schizophrenia, and also higher rates of lung cancer diagnosis than the general population. (Sources: Victorian Government Health Guidelines, Consti 2007 , Tran et al 2009).
So, while this memoir was incredibly readable, and very important as a work of health consumer literature, I did have few minor quibbles with it.
Firstly, the title is unusual. The title phrase ‘shot in the head’ is linked to Paul’s delusion that his illness was due to being literally shot in the head. The phrase represents a significant turning point for the old Paul to the new (sometimes frightening) Paul, the brother living with a mental illness. However, the phrase ‘shot in the head‘ makes the book a little tricky to search for online and may also be misleading to some potential readers (leading them to think they are picking up a murder mystery or a trashy thriller, rather than a well-written memoir). To be fair, I acknowledge that the full title makes it clear to the reader what kind of a book they are in for, but as an initial ‘grab’ phrase, it didn’t work for me.
Secondly, the inclusion of longer family emails in the text (in relation to Paul’s treatment) slowed the pace of the story a little, despite making fascinating reading. Perhaps these could have been edited down, or placed in a different way.
Thirdly, I personally found the very specific details given of US mental health policies not particularly compelling. However, I am reading this as a non-US citizen. For US readers, or those specifically interested in that side of the story, some policy detail is important to include. Also, given the family’s advocacy efforts regarding mental health treatment and care options for people with psychiatric illnesses, I understand what the author was wanting to achieve.
Overall, a very compelling and thoroughly moving read, and a great effort for a first book. Katherine’s story of her brother serves to reminds us all of our humanity, of the fragile nature of existence we lead and how precious it is.
I recommend this book for people with an interest in family memoirs, biographies and in modern mental health treatment.
Oh…and kudos to Dering and her publishers for using such incredible and original cover art. Just brilliant.
226 pages, Published March 24th 2014 by Bridgeross Communications. ISBN 192763721X
I would like to thank the publishers at Bridgecross Communications (via Library Thing) for providing me with an advanced copy for review. Apologies for the delay in the posting of the review.