A Book Almost Impossible to Have Lived and Written: Roberta Payne’s “Speaking to My Madness”

I wanted to kill myself.  Almost.  In my mind I went right to that edge and knew that I wanted to try to kill myself but be found while I was still alive.  But someone had to find out how bad it was.  Somebody had to know.  Before nightfall.  The night poised before me promised full-assault fear.  There was no way I could get through that night.Unbelievably, Liz, an old roommate of mine, knocked at my door, opened it herself, and came in.  Blood was spurt-spurting crimson from my arm.I cringed for doing that to her.

That passage is from the most riveting, courageous, agonizing, and ultimately amazing book I read this year: Speaking to My Madness: How I Searched for Myself in Schizophrenia, by Roberta Payne.  

Tom Levenson just reviewed it at Download the Universe. After this suicide attempt, he writes,

Payne’s story goes down hill. We follow her as she pursues the opportunities her clearly formidable mind opens up:  graduate studies at Harvard; mastery of language after language (Italian, ancient Greek, medieval Greek, Latin…), Ph.D work at the University of Denver.  We wince, and then grieve, as at each stop, panic, depression, fear, alcohol — buckets and buckets of booze — and then full-blown schizophrenia derail this voice, this marvelous, literate voice at once narrating and living the train wreck unfolding across the page.

We learn about the pain of her childhood home, populated by a mother presented initially as uncaring, harsh, terrifying, a distant and uncomprehending father, a sister who, as the book proceeds, is revealed to be almost utterly without empathy — or perhaps better, as thoroughly terrified of whatever existential challenge Payne’s illness seems to embody.  Payne describes in detail what happens as her schizophrenia advances, to the point where, in the hospital ward in Ames with which the book opens, she edges toward suicide…and then pulls back.

The second half of the book takes up what comes after her halt at the point of self-murder.  It’s a very long way back — years, decades of  painstaking, painful, courageous and ultimately successful labor, advanced with the help of modern pharmacology, persistent and sensitive talk therapy, AA, the rooted kindness of an admirable pair of Episcopalian clergy, and, in one of Payne’s most subtly framed challenges to expectations raised earlier in her narrative, the love and care of parents who had seemed near-villainous in the early passages of the book.

By now what Payne’s disease has taken from her is so apparent, so empathetically available, that I found myself rooting for her at every turn — and terribly fearful that something terrible might happen as I flipped each page.  But this latter story is one of renewal.  As Payne climbs out of the dark years she shows without saying what the reader can clearly recognize as the evidence of her strength, her capacity for restitution, for kindness and restitution and forgiveness.  The Roberta Payne who emerges through the final hundred pages of the book is someone it becomes a privilege to know, and one whose virtues make what her illness stole from her the more terrible.

A deeply felt review of a book that, by the nature of its material, should have been almost impossible to produce. Schizophrenia Finds Its Vergil – Download The Universe.

The book is at Speaking to My Madness: How I Searched for Myself in Schizophrenia.