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Removing Stigma from Schizophrenia with WJT Mitchell

Father and distinguished professor WJT Mitchell (Tom) lost his son, Gabe, to schizophrenia. Tom details how Gabe embraced the term “madness” in order to normalize the challenges of living with schizophrenia. Tom also shares how their family grieved together after Gabe’s death, and how he’s still ever-present in their lives.



His book is, “Mental Traveler: A Father, a Son, and a Journey Through Schizophrenia”


If you’re in the greater Chicago area and are looking for mental health resources, please visit https://www.thresholds.org/



Transcript:

Sarah Cavanaugh:

Hi, I'm Sarah Cavanaugh, and this is Peaceful Exit. Every episode we explore death, dying, and grief through stories by authors familiar with the topic. Writers are our translators. They take what is inexpressible, impossible to explain, and they translate it into words on a page. Today I'm talking with W.J.T. Mitchell. He's the Gaylord Donnelley Distinguished Service Professor of English and Art History at the University of Chicago.

He's known for many books on visual culture, media and politics. His memoir, Mental Traveler: A Father, a Son, and a Journey through Schizophrenia, came out in 2020. It's the story of his son Gabe, and his encounter with mental illness. In reading this incredible book, I feel like I got to know this amazing young man. He was artistic and funny, intelligent and kind.

Gabe really struggled with schizophrenia most of his adult life, and ultimately died by suicide at age 39. In this episode, we explore what it's like for a family navigating mental illness. It's enormously complex, and there are gifts that come out of these difficult life experiences. Please note that this episode contains talk about suicide and may be upsetting to some listeners. Well, it's lovely to meet you.

W.J.T. Mitchell:

Hi, Sarah.

Sarah Cavanaugh:

Can you tell us a little bit about Gabe?

W.J.T. Mitchell:

So he had a 20-year struggle with schizophrenia that I felt he did a heroic job of fighting for sanity, mental balance. He had an ambition, which he put this way. He said, "I want to take mental illness, schizophrenia particularly, and transform it from a disability into a framework for understanding." It was a very radical idea.

There's a huge [inaudible 00:02:08] called the DSM, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, which became the well thumbed book on our shelf, trying to figure out what name do you give to certain behaviors, attitudes of things people are saying. It's an encyclopedia of labels.

Schizophrenia is the most deadly and terrifying label because as Gabriel often said, "It's like a death sentence." Schizophrenia, you're not competent to hold a job. How can you? You are a schizophrenic. He often remarked, he said, "You know, the symptoms," that is the voices, "Are bad enough, but the label of schizophrenia is even more damaging. It tells me my life is over."

Sarah Cavanaugh:

One of the things that we're trying to do with Peaceful Exit is really talk about death and death by suicide so that it becomes less stigmatized, which I feel like Gabe, in your story, that's what he was doing for schizophrenia. He was talking about it and making it less stigmatized and saying, "I'm a human being and people love me, and it's very complex." And one of the ways he was able to do that was through his art.

W.J.T. Mitchell:

So there was this whole record of creativity. He made films, drawings, sculptures, poems, definitely an artist in many different media. And his disability prevented him from ever achieving what you might call a professional career as an artist. But it didn't prevent him from producing a lot of very interesting work.

In fact, even before his death, I was already involved with him as a collaborator in his projects. He wanted me to work with him on a very ambitious film modeled on Jean-Luc Godard's, Histoire du cinéma. It's a nine-hour film, which tells the history of the world. Gabe wanted to do the same thing for Madness. He said, "Well, we'll call it the [inaudible 00:04:21] and it will be the entire history of Madness in nine hours." And he said, "And Dad, you are my research assistant."

Sarah Cavanaugh:

Having that outlet of arts really created a platform for you to express what Gabe was going through, and for him to express himself is really remarkable.

W.J.T. Mitchell:

In fact, he made a short film called Crazy Talk, which was his kind of teaser for the big long film about Madness that he wanted to make. It's just a nine-minute film, and it already takes up the question, what is mental illness? And it's a montage of stolen footage from a lot of mainly American films about mental illness. One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, the episode of Jack Nicholson.

Sarah Cavanaugh:

Yes.

W.J.T. Mitchell:

Receiving shock treatment. And many other films including Vanilla Sky. And one thing that of course is very disturbing in retrospect, they've seen in Vanilla Sky where Tom Cruise jumps from a tall building, which is the way Gabriel left the world.

Sarah Cavanaugh:

Yeah.

W.J.T. Mitchell:

When you lose a child by suicide, we were not prepared for it. It was not like... There are some deaths like my mother's death, which are a much more comfortable exit.

Sarah Cavanaugh:

Yeah.

W.J.T. Mitchell:

My mother lived at a senior citizen home where she had made friends with all the kitchen staff over the years, and most of the kitchen staff were black women. They loved her. And in her final days, they all came up to her room and stood around her bed singing gospel music. And I could tell she was sailing off to paradise. There's nothing like going out accompanied by music.

Gabe with schizophrenia, he listened to a lot of music too, but he listened to music in order to drown the terrible voices of schizophrenia, which are telling you, "You're worthless. You will never amount to anything. You should kill yourself." Our best guess is that he wanted to taper off his medication in order to be more creative, and that in doing so, the voices got louder and he couldn't drown them out with the way he usually did by playing loud music all the time. They drove him over the edge.

Sarah Cavanaugh:

Well, as you say, that kind of a death is shocking, but what you've done, it feels like to me in writing this book and publishing this book, as you've transformed what was not a peaceful exit into something really beautiful and you give the reader a real insight into what it's like living with a mental illness.

W.J.T. Mitchell:

One of the features of schizophrenia is delusional thinking and paranoia. The feeling that there are forces outside you trying to control you or false memories. Often people with schizophrenia will construct a narrative of their life in which they blame their condition on some trauma. So in Gabriel's case, he had several narratives of this kind.

Most of them we didn't really believe or we couldn't verify them. There was one in which he had been betrayed by a girl he fell in love with, and she and another person had attempted to kill him. They were going to inject strychnine into his eye, put him into a coma.

Another was that he had been with some friends out for an evening in Chicago, and they ran into some gang bangers and his own friends turned on him and hit him over the head with a tire iron, which gave him a case of post-traumatic stress, which led to his symptoms.

I think both of these narratives were efforts to push the illness outside to say, "It isn't inside me. It was done to me." So what does the caregiver do about a narrative like this? Your parent, you're hearing your son say these things and they sound crazy, wrong. Arguing with them and saying, "But Gabe, that didn't happen."

That's pretty much a dead end. That would just produce anger. "You don't believe anything I say, why don't you listen to me? I'm telling you my experience. My experiences and my memories are real memories." So we learned the art of ambiguity, of listening carefully, of not contradicting or arguing, but just trying to be sympathetic with the purpose of telling the story. It was like a complicated dance on a knife edge.

Sarah Cavanaugh:

So at some point you decided he couldn't be living with you. That must have been a very difficult decision, and you said it wasn't good for either of you.

W.J.T. Mitchell:

Well, it was good for him to live on his own. That was definitely therapeutic. Living with us and being in this constant situation of him. I can tell you one physical thing that went on frequently. When he was feeling bad, he would start kicking down doors.

He kicked down the door of his own bedroom, kicked down the door of a bathroom downstairs, went into a violent rage. He never tried to hurt us, but he would take it out on a physical object. And I think we rightly interpreted this as he's trying to break out of this, of his house, of...

Sarah Cavanaugh:

Yeah.

W.J.T. Mitchell:

His own. He feels confined here. And we were becoming like his jailers.

Sarah Cavanaugh:

Yeah. Yeah.

W.J.T. Mitchell:

So then of course when we arranged for him to live elsewhere, he said, "You're kicking me out, aren't you?" You can see that it's every aspect of dealing with a mental illness was kind, is filled with paradox and contradiction.

Sarah Cavanaugh:

As a father, did you feel protective though? How did you...

W.J.T. Mitchell:

Yeah.

Sarah Cavanaugh:

Handle your...

W.J.T. Mitchell:

That was, yeah, that was the critical thing. How can you be protective without smothering someone? How can you make sure they're safe and yet not be their jailer keeping them too close to you? We had to find some middle route. And the way we did that was with the help of a great social service agency called Thresholds in Chicago.

The onset of the illness was quite dramatic. So he was hospitalized for several weeks, given a super sedative called Haldol. And I'll never forget him saying, "Dad, they tell me I have a thought disorder, but when they inject the Haldol into me, I don't have any thoughts." He said, "It's like living underwater." I didn't know what to say to that except, "At least your living."

And it did provide a kind of transition. Later, other drugs like Zyprexa, which have fewer side effects. They're not so sedative. But one thing that's true of I think in general about schizophrenia is people who take these drugs that they rarely say, "Oh, I love the feeling."

Sarah Cavanaugh:

No.

W.J.T. Mitchell:

"This drug gives me."

Sarah Cavanaugh:

No.

W.J.T. Mitchell:

They usually say, "No, it slows me down. It makes me feel sleepy."

Sarah Cavanaugh:

Especially for a creative.

W.J.T. Mitchell:

Yeah.

Sarah Cavanaugh:

He had all this creative energy and that tamps all of that.

W.J.T. Mitchell:

Yeah.

Sarah Cavanaugh:

Down. Yeah.

W.J.T. Mitchell:

There is very important essay by the sociologist Erving Goffman called The Moral Career of the Mental Patient. It's a classic study of what happens to people when they enter the mental health system. It's rather different from entering the medical health system. I mean, it's related. The mental illness is treated as a medical problem, and that's why medication is often prescribed.

Less and less is there an emphasis on the talking cure. But The Moral Career of the Mental Patient is one of a kind of downward trajectory. First there is the label. And if it's mild, they say, "Okay, you're depressed" or "You're anxious," or "You are suffering from stress or post-traumatic stress disorder," or "You're having episodic attacks of mania, the bipolar disorder."

So when I say The Moral Career, that's what Goffman talks about, how the mental patient becomes deemed irresponsible and capable of reasoning. Somebody else has to take responsibility for them, a caregiver's assigned to them. And usually it's a moment when the parents are defined as failed caregivers, so they have to be taken on by a professional.

Sarah Cavanaugh:

Oh, it's so interesting.

W.J.T. Mitchell:

Yeah. Because one version is, oh, it's because of bad parenting that you are the way you are. So it's a real catch-22 situation.

Sarah Cavanaugh:

Yeah.

W.J.T. Mitchell:

It can be very isolating. It became one of the main focuses of our lives. Even though I have a highly successful professional career, the care of our son became really central to our lives. That was okay with me because he gave so much back. In another way, it was not isolating because his particular version of schizophrenia was not like the average. What you read in the DSM is that people with schizophrenia become withdrawn.

Sarah Cavanaugh:

Well, he was very outgoing, it sounds like.

W.J.T. Mitchell:

Yeah, he was outgoing and vicarious.

Sarah Cavanaugh:

Yes.

W.J.T. Mitchell:

I can tell you one place where we as caregivers sometimes conflicted with him was he says, "Gabe, you don't have to tell people you have schizophrenia within five minutes of meeting them, get to know them a little bit first." But he tended to say, "No. I want to say this is what I've been defined as. I defy the definition."

Sarah Cavanaugh:

Yes.

W.J.T. Mitchell:

"I refuse to accept a label that says I'm worthless, that I have no life ahead of me." But his way of meeting strangers, one reason there were so many people at his memorial service was every time he would meet somebody within five minutes, they were having a heart-to-heart conversation. Because his view was everyone, every human being has an infinite world inside them. So he was incapable of small talk. He would meet you and say, "So tell me who are you?" And they would say, "What do you mean who am I?"

Sarah Cavanaugh:

Yeah. He had no fear. No fear.

W.J.T. Mitchell:

No. No.

Sarah Cavanaugh:

What a wonderful human being. People often talk that this kind of a situation, losing a child could actually break up a marriage, but it seems to have made yours stronger in a way.

W.J.T. Mitchell:

Absolutely.

Sarah Cavanaugh:

How many years have you been married to your wife?

W.J.T. Mitchell:

54.

Sarah Cavanaugh:

54 years.

W.J.T. Mitchell:

Dealing with a mentally ill child, their troubles, and not only the symptoms, but the stigma, if it doesn't make your marriage stronger, it could break it up. And I think it often does because one of the first instinct is, whose fault was this? We know we're both to blame. We're bad parents. That's why he is sick, but you're more at fault than I am.

Also, Gabe sensed this. So he would try to pit us against one another. He would come to me and say, "Mom is doing this." And go to Janice and talk about the terrible things I was doing. So as I say in the book, it drew us closer because we had to have frequent conferences. "He's just told me this story about how he fell ill, it sounds like a fantasy, doesn't make sense. How are we going to deal with this?" So that really brought us closer.

Sarah Cavanaugh:

So I'd love for you to talk about the infinite cube because I think it tells us so much about Gabe and how he thought and how he wanted to leave his mark on the world.

W.J.T. Mitchell:

Gabriel designed a grid in which the numbers go around the periphery and keep going toward the center. So it's like a big, a grid with a spiral. And he said the three-dimensional version of this will be an infinite cube. It'll be three by three by three on each side, and it will then be divided with wires internal to it, and the intersections of all those wires will have LED lights and the cube will be mirrored.

The reflective side will be on the inside. You'll be able to see in, but if you were inside, you would only see yourself. It's a metaphorical object. He connected it to the soul is a Monad. That inside of us is the whole world that we carry with us in our dreams, memory, imagination. And so the cube is like a model of the human mind.

And the effect when you see it in a gallery, it's now at the University of Chicago's Art Museum, you walk around the cube and no matter what direction you look at into it goes off into infinity. The lights just don't ever end, even though it is just a three by three by three box. He had designed this and made models, but he didn't have the materials or expertise to create it.

So a dear friend of ours, an artist named Antony Gormley, a British sculptor, knew about the project. Gabe had given him a model as a gift. And shortly after Gabe's death, Anthony called me up and said, "Would you give me permission to make Gabe's cube?" And I said, "Are you kidding? Go ahead." And he did. And then it was given to the University of Chicago's Smart Museum where it still is.

I mean, one of the things I love particularly about it, we talked to the docents at the museum about how do people respond to this object. Because the museum is full of artworks, and so what's particular about this one? And one of the docents said, "Well, a lot of school groups come through, and especially elementary school children.

When they come through, they all want to sit around in a circle around it, and they start telling stories, free-associating, making up stuff that they see in it and so forth." It's like kids sitting around a campfire, only it is just a sculptural object. So his idea, this is one thing that was finished in a professional way, it's just a great tribute to him. I certainly love Anthony for offering to do it.

Sarah Cavanaugh:

I love the image of the children around it, telling stories.

W.J.T. Mitchell:

Oh, the other thing that was noticeable that they said, "We actually have to clean the cube every day because kids leave nose prints all over. They know they're not supposed to touch, but they can't resist."

Sarah Cavanaugh:

I love that. I get the impression that Gabe is still very much a presence in your family, almost a driving force in some of the artistic projects.

W.J.T. Mitchell:

Yes, very much so. He's been gone now 10 years. I still miss him terribly, and there's not a day that goes by that I don't think about him. My wife is a composer. Her music is often inspired by ideas of his. And then Gabriel's sister, Carmen is a filmmaker in Los Angeles, and she has been working on a film about Gabe for a number of years now.

Looks like the finish line is in sight, and so we hope in the foreseeable future there will be a kind of personal memoir film about his life. So he's very much, it's as if he's here. We really, and it's not because we're trying to make him a monument or anything. It's just, this is just the way we live and what feels right.

Sarah Cavanaugh:

What are your hopes for this book?

W.J.T. Mitchell:

I think it is a book that might be useful for people who have a loved one who's suffering from mental illness, and they just don't know how to deal with it. Not that it's a how to, it's also a how not to, it's a book that tries to be honest about the paradoxes, the dilemmas that you face, and maybe a little bit of comfort.

Sarah Cavanaugh:

You have a remarkable family.

W.J.T. Mitchell:

Well, thank you.

Sarah Cavanaugh:

Thank you for your time, and I really appreciate you being so honest about the struggles you had as a parent.

W.J.T. Mitchell:

Thank you.

Sarah Cavanaugh:

Thank you for listening to Peaceful Exit. You can learn more about this podcast and my online course at my website, peacefulexit.net. If you enjoyed this episode, please let us know. You can rate and review this show on Spotify and Apple Podcasts. This episode was produced by Larj Media. You can find them at larjmedia.com. Special thanks to Ricardo Russell for the original music throughout this podcast. More of his music can be found on Bandcamp. As always, thanks for listening. I'm Sarah Cavanaugh, and this is Peaceful Exit.



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