Excerpts / Features / Nonfiction

“Gram Julia’s Spies,” by Marin Sardy, from The Edge of Every Day

by Marin Sardy

Support Independent Bookstores - Visit IndieBound.orgMarin Sardy’s memoir The Edge of Every Day: Sketches of Schizophrenia, out from Pantheon on May 21 (what would have been her grandmother Barbara’s 100th birthday), traces the path of schizophrenia that runs through her family. Taking the reader through three generations of her “adventurous, artistic, and often haunted family,” Sardy draws on disciplines ranging from neuroscience to evolution to mythology to offer an unflinching—and at the same time deeply sympathetic—look at the mind’s workings, the treatment of the mentally ill in society, and her own experiences.

Sardy, 44, was born and raised in Anchorage, AK, and has a bachelor’s degree in biology. Originally intending to become a scientist, she spent five years working seasonally as a field technician, collecting data for avian ecology studies for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Alaska, before deciding to write full-time. Sardy took her first creative writing class at 28, and since then has earned an MA in liberal studies and an MFA in nonfiction writing, between degrees working as a magazine editor and arts/culture journalist in Santa Fe.

The Edge of Every Day took about seven years to write, Sardy told Bloom—”a long and circuitous route that started in my MFA program at Columbia and finally came to fruition this year.” A starred Kirkus review called The Edge of Every Day “both powerful and disturbing,” noting that Sardy “chronicles the immense difficulties in trying to maintain a semblance of sanity while both her mother and brother suffer through schizophrenia that they refuse to acknowledge, with the rest of the family in various states of denial as well.”

Following is an excerpt from “Gram Julia’s Spies.”

*

I come from a family of storytellers. On my mother’s side, storytelling is treated as an art form. Gesture, rhythm, and timing are all important, as are wit and lyricism. For my grandmother Barbara, storytelling was a way of inhabiting her own life and of creating a world for her family to inhabit. My mother, a gifted storyteller in her own right, spoke at length only of her elaborate delusions, almost never of life before she fell ill. But Barbara’s stories spoke to me of my own life, of the why of things. They reached far back, to her Chicago childhood and further, through the generations. And it was in the cracks and crevices of those stories that I began to trace clues to our lineage of mental illness—a largely unacknowledged inheritance, often hushed or reconfigured, revealing itself obliquely.

There is the story of the Japanese spies. Told and retold by my aunts and uncles, a humorous tale about Barbara’s mother Julia’s high jinks, it goes like this: During World War II, when Chicago was on alert about a possible invasion, Gram Julia came to believe there were Japanese soldiers hiding in her walls. They had radios, she said, and they were spying on her family. She took to regularly calling the fire department and telling the firemen to come to her house and find these spies. The fire chief knew better than to listen to her and always found a way to avoid going out to the house. Until one night a substitute was in charge, and when Julia called he took her seriously. A fire truck arrived at the house and firemen commenced to hack apart a wall. When this revealed no spies, they left.

“She was a character,” my aunts and uncles said of Gram Julia. She was bold and artistic, with interests in the paranormal and metaphysical. She had a powerful personality, very charismatic, and she could be a lot of fun. “Oh, you know,” one aunt told me, “she always wore red.” People were drawn to her. But she wasn’t a nurturing type. She had a reputation for being selfish. She also believed she was psychic, and in 1932, when the Lindbergh baby was kidnapped, she became convinced that the child was nearby. She drove all through the streets of Chicago searching for him, thinking she could sense where he was, feel her way toward him, save the boy—when all the while, the baby was lying dead in the woods of New Jersey. The first time I asked Barbara what Julia was like, she opened her eyes wide and said, “No one else!”

Barbara was our family’s master storyteller. A great lover of English novels, she had an instinct for timing and a flair for structural parallels, both honed by the literature degree she earned in midlife at UCLA. And the fact was I craved her stories and the past they revealed—back to the old family farm in southern Maryland, a onetime tobacco plantation called La Grange, where, in the late nineteenth century, Gram Julia was raised. Recalling that place and the summers she had spent there, her meandering words wound into our family tree like a spiral drill. It was through her stories that I felt her embrace me, as she unspooled them with care and generosity, even when they hurt her. Even when she spoke haltingly, her words catching on difficult memories—of mental illness, of her brother and her daughter, my mother.

Gram Julia, she told me, had met Barbara’s father, Perry Sr., during the few years they both lived in Manhattan in the 1920s. Julia had left Maryland on her own and was working as an advertising illustrator while Perry worked as an engineer for a building firm. Perry, it turned out, had a drinking problem but was “on the wagon” during the year of their courtship. After they married, he promptly fell off the wagon and stayed off it for the rest of his life. Their marriage was contentious—one that required alignments, and Barbara’s loyalty was always to Perry. He had the mind of an engineer, for which Julia showed open contempt. “The worst thing about Perry,” she used to say, “is that he thinks two plus two equals four.” Barbara, who also consistently found two plus two to equal four, was confounded by this accusation. Even eight decades later, when she relayed it to me, she still seemed confounded.

It never occurred to anyone in my family to wonder if Gram Julia had a mental illness until I suggested that she might have. I was searching—always, in the back of my mind—for a line of ancestry to explain the schizophrenia in the younger generations. Maybe, I thought, Julia had such tendencies. When I said this to one of my aunts, she paused, folded up her brow, considered. She had never thought about it before. She then pointed out that there was also something rigid about Gram Julia, a staunch inflexibility about how she behaved and how she interpreted things—traits associated with schizophrenia, traits that reminded her of my mother. Later an uncle recoiled at the idea. The family already had a story in place to explain Gram Julia. “Selfish,” they said. “A character.”

“But isn’t that odd?” I persisted. Spies with radios. It suggested not only paranoia but a full-blown delusion, or more. If the spies had radios, this seemed to mean that she heard people talking—heard voices coming from the walls—and interpreted them as radio transmissions. It sounded to me like Gram Julia had been hallucinating.

*

My grandmother Barbara had the sensitivity that you see in literary types, and the acuteness of perception common in people whose parents were emotionally unreliable. She understood personalities, yearnings, weaknesses, and was at times frantic about living up to the standards of her role as the wife of an oil executive—the importance of being gracious, of being beautiful, of being thin. She lived most of her life as a hostess, reading the needs of everyone in the room, sensing their feelings, offering what she could to make them comfortable. Politeness was paramount, as the dignity of others should be preserved, even when they irritated her.

They often did. Her bad moods could fill a room and make you afraid to say a word. She could cut you to the bone without warning. Even in her good moods, she felt her dislikes so intensely that it was hard for her to hold them in. She was petrified of birds and, looking up at the barn swallows in their mud nests under the porch eaves at the ranch, a sight that charmed almost everyone, she would announce, “Oh, how horrid.”

She and my grandfather had spent 50 years collecting the paintings that hung on the walls of their house in Roswell. Portraits of horses, New Mexico landscapes, Modernist abstractions, a prized charcoal drawing of a ballerina. I would sit with them amid the French-English decor of their living room and peer up at a painting that hung above the mantel.

My grandfather’s favorite, it was a portrait of Barbara when she was young, statuesque and poised in a slim purple gown, with pale hands that slipped into the shadows of a bouquet of oversize blooms. And as the young Barbara gazed placidly out at us, her shoulders bare and lovely, the elderly Barbara would talk to me about whatever was on her mind. Sometimes this included even the sad stories, the stories of mental illness that she often refused to share with others. Those were her gift to me alone. For caring, I suppose. For asking. And more than that, for telling. She was like that—guarded, but ready to reciprocate what you offered.

Even in her nineties, Barbara was strangely, astoundingly, still beautiful. Her white hair. Her smile, fleeting and real. And sometimes when she turned, her gray-green eyes flashed in their deep sockets and the fine forms of her nose and cheekbones shone, and there again was the face in the portrait. And as we sat beneath it I would begin to feel the canvas breathing her in and out, the flowers taking over. If I looked at it too long, her eyes grew so deep that I feared I’d fall in.

*

I was just beginning to understand that the distinction between mental health and mental illness is not always clear, in its broad terrain of indistinct and sometimes subjective markers. Schizophrenia’s symptoms occur in many combinations and vary in intensity and frequency, highlighting how the complexities of the brain and the fuzzy boundaries of mental health can, and often do, give rise to variegated conditions. Today Gram Julia might have been diagnosed with schizophreniform disorder, a transient psychosis that resembles schizophrenia but is less debilitating. It is possible, too, that Julia’s distorted perceptions were not disabling enough to constitute a disorder at all. After all, she managed all right without any treatment. Whether she was genuinely disabled by her mental state is hard to know. She always had money and people to take care of her.

Julia’s eccentricities do, however, seem a harbinger of what was to come. Her son Perry Jr., Barbara’s brother, showed signs in adolescence of a mental health problem that soon developed into a serious, and mysterious, illness. It was something like schizophrenia but difficult to pinpoint. He had a major breakdown in early adulthood and spent several years in an institution—the famous Menninger Clinic. (Those were the days before the warehousing of the mentally ill was outlawed and America’s asylums were emptied.) What’s more, he was gay, at a time when homosexuality was considered a mental illness, and this was part of why he was sent to the clinic. Now this only muddies the picture I try to construct of his mental health. Perry was eventually released and moved into an apartment nearby, living the rest of his life within walking distance of the clinic, visiting his doctor every few days, holding no job, never quite able to live independently.

Barbara was told he had “manic depression”—bipolar disorder—though she said he showed no signs of the mood cycles that define that illness. “It was a catchall,” she told me, handing over the information as if relieved to be freed of the burden of trying to make sense of it. Family descriptions of Perry’s problems fit better within the schizophrenia spectrum—perhaps schizotypal personality disorder, which involves social indifference, withdrawal, and “unusual experiences of reality.” Perry showed profound emotional detachment from others, as well as severe anxiety and, at times, crippling paranoia. He was friendly but solitary, disengaged, always unkempt. He never bought his furniture but rented it for decades. Nor would he open his mail, letting it pile up waist-high beside the door. His best friends were the stars of the movies he loved to watch. He may have been suicidal. And for a while at Menninger’s he refused to leave his room, so certain was he that if he walked down the hall, a light fixture would fall onto his head.

*

Support Independent Bookstores - Visit IndieBound.orgMaybe all this helps explain some things about Barbara. For one, she never liked stories about talking animals—they made her uncomfortable. She disliked even the old nursery rhymes in which rabbits spoke to field mice. Once, when I made the mistake of renting the Peter Pan movie Finding Neverland for us to watch, she sat sullenly through the first half and then got up to go to bed. Other things that made her nervous included poems that didn’t rhyme and novels that lacked a linear plot structure. Her favorites were Longfellow and Kipling, Jane Austen, Steinbeck. In conversations about modern fiction, she flatly denied she could follow a fragmented narrative, avowing that Toni Morrison’s Beloved simply did not make sense to her.

I am told that she was deeply saddened by Perry’s illness, by his failure to build any kind of life for himself and, more revealingly, by the way he never “fit in.” It seems to me that all her life she believed that happiness would come to the well behaved. Hiding her anxieties behind a veneer of impatience, she was short-tempered with any action that upset what she took to be the natural order of things. Yet I always sensed, too, that some part of her strained against the very order she tried to impose. As if that tendency—compensatory, self-protective—was an inadequate solution and she knew it.

Our family is what is called a multiplex family—one in which schizophrenia occurs in successive generations. And trickling around the clear cases of mental illness is something more diffuse—scatterings of our genetic susceptibility. Many of schizophrenia’s underlying genes contribute to other disorders as well, and some aspects of the illness spectrum may additionally be linked to intelligence and creativity. Barbara had seven children, and among them and her twenty grandchildren I find the full range of this inheritance. Among my cousins, IQs are high and currents of creativity run thick, as do depression and anxiety, with a few addictions and some signs of mania, autism, and ADHD thrown in. Touched, my father says we are. One of my sisters says that when under a lot of stress, she sometimes hears voices. “Auditory hallucinations,” she says. “I have them. Occasionally.” She does not, however, believe that the voices are real. Nor do they interfere with her life. Still, when I think of this, I feel my own luck wash over me like a cold wave. How close we have come.

Bloom Post End

Marin Sardy’s work has appeared in the New Yorker, Tin House, Guernica, the Rumpus, the Missouri Review, and many other journals, as well as in two award-winning photography books—Landscape Dreams (2012) and Ghost Ranch and the Faraway Nearby (2009). Her criticism and cultural journalism have appeared in regional and national magazines, including ArtNews and Art Ltd. Sardy has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize, and her work has twice been listed among the year’s notable essays in Best American Essays.

Photo of Marin Sardy by Grace Palmer

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