Great Works About Raising Kids with Mental Illness

The greatest fear I harbor about having kids is that I will, as Philip Larkin puts it in “This Be the Verse,” fuck them up. I will fuck them up in some imperceptible way at first and there will be big consequences for it later. I fear that something will be “off” with my Hypothetical Child and I will be unaware or incapable of understanding it immediately, and that when I do finally become aware, I will somehow make matters worse by choosing the wrong treatment or not recognizing the gravity of whatever my child is going through. Perhaps, I fear, I will do too much and employ some intervention that only alienates my child or causes more suffering. I fear a random misfiring of synapses, some mysterious mix of brain chemicals, that tells my kid she’s not worthy of happiness, a pain that my nurturing can’t heal. But the darkest fear that lingers beneath all these scenarios is one I don’t often mention: that I will somehow have a “problematic” reaction to any affliction—emotional or physical—that my Hypothetical Child might have; that I will become secretly resentful, or angry, or just shitty for them to be around.

These great fears of mine (hello, welcome to Bookforum, leave YOUR greatest fears in the comments, stranger!) have also spurred a love of reading memoirs, essays, and some fiction about raising kids who have mental illnesses or who have suffered traumas. These books bring my anxieties to the surface, quell some, inflame others. Most of all, they make me realize that parental relationships aren’t limited to parents; after reading these tiny instruction manuals, I feel like I can treat all kids—of various ages—with more decency and thoughtfulness. Many of these works read like detective/mystery stories with the stakes being enormously high and the catharsis hard-won. Reading Andrew Solomon’s Far from the Tree is high on my to-do list. For now, here are my favorites.

Raising Blaze by Debra Ginsberg

Ginsberg raised her son, Blaze, largely before autism had a name—at the time, the doctor’s best guess for her son’s puzzling behavior was that it was related to some “birth trauma.” The first years of Blaze’s life are strange but also wondrous for Ginsberg. Blaze won’t crawl but then he suddenly stands up, loves jazz, creates intricate systems of organization, and most of all is a loving, open delight to his mother and grandfather. But when Blaze leaves home to start school he falls apart. All his quirks and idiosyncrasies become “red flags” in a school setting. Ginsberg has a strong and compelling voice and she sets up a great conflict between the reality of the world she has created for Blaze inside the safety of her apartment, versus life in the outside world—which serves as a great metaphor for us all.

Episodes: My Life As I See It By Blaze Ginsberg

This memoir, a wonderful companion book to Raising Blaze, was published when Blaze was twenty-one years old. He organizes his memories in a TV show format: through reruns, reoccurring characters, syndication, and cancelations. The result is a fascinating peak into Blaze’s interior life.

Genie: A Scientific Tragedy by Russ Rymer

Genie is one of my top-ten favorite books of all time. Genie’s parents strapped her to a potty chair and locked her in a bedroom from the time she was a toddler to when she turned 13 in 1970. Genie never saw her parents (they slid her meals under the door); she did not know how to talk or walk or clean herself. Genie is, to this day, the closest case of a feral child since the Wild Boy of Aveyron in the late eighteenth century. For ten years, Genie bounced between researchers, doctors, institutions, and then went back to the mother who had allowed her to be locked her in the bedroom in the first place. Everyone is eager to help Genie learn language and take care of herself, but they continually fail to meet Genie’s most basic need: the love of a single caregiver.

January First: A Child’s Descent into Madness and her Father’s Struggle to Save Her by Michael Schofield

January Schofield is one of the few kids under the age of fifteen to be diagnosed with schizophrenia—a diagnosis most clinicians never thought possible until just a few years ago. Like Ginsberg in Raising Blaze, January’s parents are convinced that their child is a genius. January is verbal at a very young age and creates an elaborate fantasy world filled with benevolent creatures whose adventures she shares with her parents. The slow, agonizing realization that their daughter is actually experiencing psychosis nearly shreds the Schofield family apart. Particularly when January starts attacking her baby brother. Some people who have read this book, written by January’s father, have found his voice too aggressive, angry, and unapologetic. But Schofield’s rage—given the huge amount of dead ends, compromises, and brushes with death he has to undergo to save his daughter’s life—seem unavoidable.

Lucky by Alice Sebold

Sebold suffered a brutal rape during her freshman year of college. The police officers who took down the details of the crime said she was “lucky” to be alive. Sebold’s trauma takes a decade to resolve and there is alcohol and heroin addiction along the way. There are several chunks in this magnificent memoir devoted to Sebold’s home life, focusing on how her own parents try to offer support, and on the way her family breaks down and slowly reform following her trauma.

Teenagers Educated The Village Way by Chaim Peri

This is a slim manifesto from the director of Yemin Orde, a village-style boarding school for foster youth in Israel. It’s hard to heal a whole family when the parents are absent; the best an institution can do in this situation is focus entirely on the child and prove to them that adults will not abandon them again. That means no foster parents (they can be too unreliable). Peri does not propose that his educators and counselors can serve as surrogate parents to abandoned teens. But they can build the kind of durable, steadfast relationship that their parents could not. I reported on a school in San Diego called San Pasqual Academy that is affiliated with Yemin Orde and uses Peri’s book as a founding ideology. I was deeply moved by the way the students at the live-in school thrived among their peers and a supportive community of educators.

“Wednesday’s Child” by Joyce Carol Oates

This short story explores the self-destructive impulses a parent feels because his severely autistic daughter cannot speak or express love. It is dark, transgressive, and beautiful.

“He” by Katherine Anne Porter

Complicated and devastating, Porter’s short story outlines a mother’s decision to institutionalize her son. It’s unclear what the son actually suffers from; it is also unclear if the family “did all they could” for him.

“I Stand Here Ironing” by Tillie Olsen

Olsen’s classic short story—narrated by a mother reflecting on how she might have raised her first daughter differently—is likely the reason I harbor such fear about my child’s existence being in some way beyond me, and unknowable. This paragraph still haunts me: “And when is there time to remember, to sift, to weigh, to estimate, to total? I will start and there will be an interruption and I will have to gather it all together again. Or I will become engulfed with all I did or did not do, with what should have been and what cannot be helped.”

Natasha Vargas-Cooper is the author of Mad Men Unbuttoned: A Romp Through 1960s America (Harper Design, 2010).