Book Review - Fear, fearing itself

Friday, September 28, 2012

"Circles Around the Sun: In Search of a Lost Brother," by Molly McCloskey. Overlook, 240 p. $24.95.

At nine years old, Molly McCloskey learned that her oldest brother, 14 years older than her, had schizophrenia.

Michael was diagnosed in 1973, when the only test available for a diagnosis like this was "an interview with a clinician, who assesses the presence or absence of certain symptoms and the period of time over which they have persisted."

Nearly 40 years later, McClosky publishes "Circles Around the Sun," a memoir about her family and about a brother so distant from the reality that surrounded him.

"I had decided from the start that were he ever to say, 'No, don't write about me,' or 'No, I don't want to be in your book' -- and he is capable of saying 'no' to things he doesn't want: seeing certain people, recommended medical care -- I would shelve the project. While I was glad that he responded positively on three occasions to the question of being in a book I was writing, and consented to talk to me about his life, I also knew that a 'yes' constituted a cloudier kind of consent than it would in the case of someone who was not suffering from a mental illness."

While deeply personal, "Circles Around the Sun," is told from a woman who is still, even 40 years into the process, searching for closure.

McCloskey is incredibly scientific in the book. Over the years, she's become very educated on schizophrenia, having read nearly every book on the topic. When she talks about Michael, she distances herself from the page, speaking almost as a physician would of a regular patient.

"People with schizophrenia are like people without the illness, in that their subjective level of satisfaction tends to be linked to how well they are doing relative to those around them. But in the case of someone with schizophrenia, an increased level of functioning brings with it an awareness of just how far behind one is."

Oddly enough, the person that is portrayed in the most life-like way is McCloskey's mother, Anita. The first chapters are dedicated to the love story between her mother and father, though not as much time is spent on her own relationship with her former husband.

Anita is vibrant in the pages, even after she and her husband divorce and she's left with the still shocking title of "divorcee".

"What survived the transition from wifely cheerleader to reluctant divorcee was her sense of fun and curiosity. Though the split was heartbreaking for her, she welcomed the opportunities that single life afforded."

Potentially one of the reasons that McClosky does not delve deep into the relationship her family shares with her brother, even though she has 40 years of letters written between them, is that, should she fall too far into the abyss that is schizophrenia, she would emerge with an understanding of her own psyche that she is not yet ready to face.

In a conversation with psychiatrist friend Azad, she explains to him why she had never been comfortable with psychotherapy, because "if anyone were to probe deeply enough, he or she would realize that I was crazy."

In response, Azad leans in to whisper, still looking her square in the eye, and states simply, "We are all crazy."

But her fear is justified. Because of her brother's diagnosis, McCloskey has a 7 to 9 percent chance of becoming schizophrenic herself, higher than the 1 percent chance anyone else would have.

The anxiety is what troubles her the most.

"During the years when I had experienced intermittent free-floating anxiety, I had cast about for an understanding of it. I'd read Kierkegaard and Schopenhauer and Pema Chodron's 'The Places That Scare You.' I'd read 'What to Say When You Talk to Yourself' and 'The Panic and Anxiety Workbook.' I had applied the techniques of cognitive behaviour modification. I had quit drinking. I had taken up medication. Gradually, the fear had left me. And yet, here it was, back again, waiting for me each morning."

And even while she finds herself in pits of anxiety, she has learned that "anxiety is essentially the condition in which fear is fearing itself."

"Kierkegaard likened it to a Grand Inquisitor, who attacks when we are weakest and never lets us escape, 'neither by diversion nor by noise, neither at work or at play, neither by day nor by night.'"

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