‘Mental Traveler’

Professor discusses his book on his son's battle with schizophrenia.

April 7, 2020

W. J. T. Mitchell is the Gaylord Donnelley Distinguished Service Professor of English and Art History at the University of Chicago. But his new book, Mental Traveler: A Father, a Son and a Journey Through Schizophrenia (University of Chicago Press) comes out of a very personal experience. His son, Gabriel, was diagnosed with schizophrenia at the age of 21 and ended his own life 18 years later. Mitchell's memoir tells the story of how his family hoped and coped.

He responded to questions via email.

Q: Can you share the timeline of your son's diagnosis and death?

A: Gabe showed early signs of a thought disorder in the fall of 1991. He was 18 years old and a freshman at New York University. He was diagnosed with schizophrenia in the fall of 1994, when he was hospitalized after a violent psychotic break and was medicated for the first time. He moved from the hospital to a halfway house for a few weeks while we found a residential facility for him. He moved into Humboldt House, a residence operated by the Thresholds agency, in the winter of 1995, and lived there for about eight years.

In 2004 he found Section 8 subsidized housing in Marina City [in Chicago], where he lived until his death in 2012. In that period he worked with Thresholds in a variety of educational and occupational programs. He took classes in filmmaking at Columbia College, attended film classes at the University of Chicago’s downtown extension program and participated in a variety of ventures in music and theater. He also started writing screenplays and experimenting with drawing, painting, calligraphy and geometric diagrams. From 2002 to 2011 he worked part-time (20 hours per week on average) at the Jewel Food chain in the produce department, starting in the Uptown store and moving later to the flagship store in Chicago’s River North area.

He created his own website, Philmworx.com, wrote three screenplays and a graphic novel, began learning the skills of film editing, and made a number of films, including a feature-length film entitled Philosomentary. He continued taking film classes, taught some classes in screenwriting and in 2006 joined a group of University of Chicago film scholars who were studying Jean-Luc Godard’s nine-hour Histoire(s) du cinema in minute detail. Around 2010 he began to conceive of a long film that would document the “Histoire(s) de la folie,” or history of madness, and started work on a pilot film entitled Crazy Talk. He asked me to serve as the image researcher for the film, tasked with compiling the vast archive of representations of insanity in film, theater, literature and beyond. As a starting point, in the winter of 2011 I organized a University of Chicago seminar entitled Seeing Madness: Insanity, Media and Visual Culture, which I taught along with my colleagues Francoise Meltzer, a comparative literature scholar, and her husband, Bernard Rubin, a psychoanalyst and psychiatrist. Gabriel attended this seminar, debuting the pilot film for his magnum opus and giving a lecture about it after the screening. He continued to see a talk therapist, a psychiatrist and a social worker during this period and continued to work at the Jewel Food store.

In the fall of 2011, he asked for a leave from work so that he could go back to film school at Columbia College full-time. In the winter of 2012, he struggled to deal with incompletes and had to suspend his enrollment at Columbia. On June 24, 2012, he took his own life by jumping from the 59th floor of Marina City.

Q: Why did you decide to write this book?

A: At first, I had no intention of writing a memoir. I turned the research into the history of madness that I had begun for Gabe’s [film] into a series of essays on various aspects of the challenge he had posed to me. I gathered the essays in a completed book manuscript, entitled Seeing Through Madness that was submitted to University of Chicago Press in 2017, where it was accepted for publication. As I worked on the final manuscript, however, the biographical introduction began to grow out of control, and I came to realize that it needed to be a separate book. I decided to suspend work on Seeing Through Madness and began work on Mental Traveler, which took about three years and numerous rewrites to finish.

Q: What did you know about schizophrenia prior to your son's diagnosis?

A: Very little, really. I knew that it was the scariest form of mental illness defined by psychiatry, that it had an enormous range of symptoms, was thought to be incurable and only partially manageable with medication. I knew that it carried the most damaging stigma of all the mental disorders. After 20 years of living with it and helping Gabe manage it, I continue to wonder whether the label names anything very definite. Gabriel vacillated between accepting the diagnosis and cooperating with his doctors, on the one hand, and denying it on the other, trying to replace it with PTSD and recovered memories of a trauma that no one else could remember. He also became increasingly militant about affirming mental illness as a political identity and a minority status that combines the roles of the disabled with the outsider artist.

Q: You include in the book a number of drawings Gabriel made. What do they show?

A: The drawings provide a window into his mental and social life. The drawings for his music video, “Desolation Row,” portray him as an Dylanesque outsider artist and skateboarder witnessing homelessness, addiction and mental illness in the gang-dominated neighborhood of Humboldt Park, where he lived from 1995 to 2004. In his diagrams, he presents himself as cosmologist, producing a Cartesian “grid theory” (also realized in a short film by that title) that excludes all negative spaces and numbers. Grid theory traces the human impulse to design abstract graphic models from the ancient world to the present. Gabe regarded his grid as a model for everything from the structure of the DNA molecule to the shape of the universe, to the form of a healthy mental life. He began designing a three-dimensional sculptural version of his grid in an “infinite cube,” constructed out of mirrored glass around a wire matrix containing 1,000 omnidirectional LED lights. After his death, this design was realized as a gift by the British sculptor Antony Gormley and now is scheduled to be a permanent public installation at the University of Chicago’s Law School.

Q: How did you and Gabriel navigate medical treatment for him?

A: Navigating the world of mental health was always difficult. He had excellent social workers who helped him get and hold a job and regularize his life, but he never found a talk therapist who could establish a strong relationship with him. Gabe could quickly go from compliance, taking his meds, to going off the medication and self-medicating with alcohol, especially in the first eight years of the illness. In the last 10 years of his life, he managed to stay sober and increased his productivity as an artist and filmmaker. We think that his suicide might have been triggered by his reducing his meds in order to sharpen his creative talents, which were increasingly in demand from fellow artists. In the final months of his life, he made a film about the madness of the '60s, a montage of historical images with the voiceover of Bill Ayers reading from his memoir, Fugitive Days. In his final weeks, he attended a conference of comic artists including Art Spiegelman, Alison Bechdel, R. Crumb and Joe Sacco, where the borders between mental disorders and graphic memoirs seemed very porous indeed.

Q: What is the message you hope your book will have?

A: I find it hard to boil it down to a single message. I’m sure I wrote it as a way of mourning Gabriel and trying to keep him alive. The narrative arc of the book traces a transformation of our relationship and the beginning of a strange role reversal. The longer he survived schizophrenia, the more I came to admire his courage and energy in fighting the illness. At some point, I began to feel not just love and sympathy for my sick son, but wonder at his determination to follow his own creative path while watching his friends move on to marriage and career.

I began to see his “disability” as something he was engaged in conquering and transforming into an ability, and although he saw himself as an outsider artist, he steadfastly shot his films with a firm conviction that he would some day walk the red carpet at the Academy Awards. (Gabe loved to portray himself as a superhero “capable of drinking coffee, smoking cigarettes and getting kicked out of prestigious universities at the same time,” and his favorite Marvel superheroes were all mental cases: e.g., Batman: depression; Wolverine: misanthropy; Dark Phoenix: schizophrenia.)

In some strange way that I have still not figured out, I began to think of him as my consigliere, my best friend, and as my caregiver in the not-too-distant future. As for “messages” for other people, there are dozens. I wanted people to see how a family copes with mental illness, how it can drive them apart or pull them together -- sometimes both. The book is not just about the two of us: Gabe’s mother, his sister and a large extended family of close friends are crucial to the story. I wanted to show the complexity of caregiving, the compromises and ingenuity it demands.

One chapter of the book is called “On the Immoral Career of the Care Giver,” an echo of Erving Goffman’s “The Moral Career of the Mental Patient.” It tries to show the double binds that afflict a family that decides to consign one its members to the mental health system, how it may be necessary to lie to a loved one and why they might come to see their caregivers as persecutors and saviors at the same time. I wanted to show how a father can fail his son while trying to do his best, and succeed now and then in spite of himself. I wanted to give mental illness a human face and show how close it is to whatever it is we mean by “normality.” I wanted to show that madness can be quite compatible with wit, humor and intelligence, and that crazy people are not crazy all the time. I increasingly felt drawn into Gabe’s world, and one of the chapters in the Seeing Through Madness sequel to this memoir is entitled “Method, Madness, Montage,” a reflection on the whole crazy attempt to see and show the totality of mental disorders.

I’m firmly convinced that any firm lines between madness and sanity can only be drawn in the shifting sands of culture, social norms, legal institutions and medical knowledge. No one gets through a human life without experiencing some form of madness, directly or indirectly. It is endemic to our species, as philosophers from Plato to Erasmus (The Praise of Folly) to R. D. Laing have shown. Laing regarded so-called schizophrenics as akin to 17th-century seafarers, most of whom never returned to tell about their adventures. Gabe was among the few who came back and tried to tell his story. “On Gifted Schizophrenia” will be one of the chapters of Seeing Through Madness, and it will link Gabe’s story to figures like John Nash, Judge Schreber, Aby Warburg, Elyn Saks and William Blake.

We all go crazy, whether from love, trauma, neglect or brain chemistry. Anyone can be driven insane, and the American prison system is a great engine for the production of mental disorders, while our profit-driven health-care system is at best a mediocre palliative with its emphasis on drugs rather than talk therapy and its tendency to transform diagnostic labels into fatal stigmas. Madness is an essential part of what it means to be human. It is a question of degree of mental suffering and disorder, rather than kind. We experienced some part of this world, up close and personal, and I wanted to convey that as honestly as I could.


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