And The Painful Search For Answers
By Michael Kurth
The media has recently begun to focus a spotlight on the increasing number of suicides across the nation. The number of suicides has increased approximately 25 percent over the last two decades, and suicide currently ranks as the 10th leading cause of death in the United States.
The increase is especially pronounced in the 15-24 age range, and among males, who are four times more likely than females to take their own lives.
What accounts for this? Researchers are not sure. There is a connection between suicide and mental illness and some see a connection to drug addiction, although the two may simply be fellow travelers on the road of social misery.
But the problem goes well beyond those who take their own life. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there are generally between 6 and 32 loss survivors — close family and friends left behind to ask why? and struggle to cope with their grief; and often their feelings of guilt.
Unfortunately, my family is among this group. Our children have all lost close friends and classmates who took their own lives. And my oldest son Michael’s wife, Gayle Brandeis, recently published a book about losing her mother: The Art of Misdiagnosis: Surviving My Mother’s Suicide.
Gayle is a very talented writer and poet. She’s received numerous awards and recognitions for fiction writing, including the Bellwether Prize for Fiction of Social Engagement for The Book of Dead Birds and a Silver Nautilus Award for My Life with the Lincolns (see: gaylebrandeis.com).
But The Art of Misdiagnosis is not fiction. It is a wrenching, personal tale centered around the birth of her third child — my grandson, Asher — in 2009 and the suicide of her increasingly delusional mother just one week later.
Gayle wrote the book at the recommendation of her therapist as a way of understanding both her mother and her own emotions. It reads more like a suspense novel than a memoir, as Gayle goes through her mother’s possessions and digs into her past — a newborn baby on her chest — in an effort to make sense of what happened.
Gayle’s mother, Arlene Brandeis, was a talented painter and prominent social activist in southern California. But she had also suffered from a delusional psychosis centered on the belief that her children were afflicted with rare diseases that went undiagnosed by the medical profession. At the time of her suicide she was attempting to produce a documentary film she called The Art of Misdiagnosis to draw national attention to this problem; hence, the title of Gayle’s book.
With the approaching birth of Asher, Arlene’s delusions intensified, as she imagined various conspiracies swirling around her, thwarting her efforts to produce her documentary. She constantly found “evidence” of plots, spying, and people following her that did more to convince others she was mentally ill than to persuade them the conspiracies she imagined were real.
Her mother disappeared just before Gayle gave birth to Asher. At first, Gayle was relieved she did not have to deal with her mother and a new baby at the same time. But as the days passed, she and Michael became more concerned.
They found Gayle’s mother a week later in a parking garage in Pasadena, where she had hung herself in a utility closet.
The book has received great reviews from readers as well as other writers, who see it as a brave, gripping tale that is hard to put down. I read it on a more personal level, because it’s about my daughter-in-law, son and grandson. Cathy and I even get a few mentions in the book.
Although I met Arlene at Michael and Gayle’s wedding, nothing stood out to me as out-of-sorts. But then, I’ve never been accused of being overly observant or sensitive to the emotions of those around me.
Besides being a very interesting read, the book highlights the plight of those afflicted with mental disorders; how their mental condition affects their children and other members of their family while they are alive; and the suffering and emotional scars it leaves when they take their lives. For Gayle, the joy of having Asher will forever be comingled with the pain of losing her mother.