Customer Reviews: The Outsider: A Journey Into My Father's Struggle With Madness
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on March 13, 2000
At a time when far too many memoirs either wallow in psychobabble and sentimentality, or retreat to a smug and shallow irony, Nathaniel Lachenmeyer's The Outsider proves a welcome exception. Thoughtful and heartfelt, this book shows what is possible when one focuses one's intelligence on a subject that is both personal yet outside oneself. Lachenmeyer attempts to understand his father. Does he succeed? In many ways, yes. Does he learn something of himself? Certainly. But more importantly, as he takes an unflinching look at his father's schizophrenia, as he chronicles his father's delusions, Lachenmeyer is able to honor him. He offers a study of madness that is remarkable in its lucidity.
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A son's attempt to come to understand the schizophrenic illness that struck his father when the son was a small boy. He had had little contact with him after that, but he came to know in later times his father's story, the downward spiral caused by his illness. What comes through, too, is the dignity with which his father attempted to cling to his humanity, even though he was tortured by a convoluted paranoid delusional system. Eventually the people in a Vermont town were able help him, ironically, by getting him convicted for panhandling, a move that got him off the streets, where his weight, at a height of 6'4", was 140 pounds, and where he was suffering frostbite during a bitter winter, and into a mental hospital where he was given medication that improved his condition and undoubtedly saved his life. The author writes about the pros and cons, then, of our society having criminalized mental illness; in this case the father's life was saved after he'd been arrested for a petty crime, determined to be not guilty by reason of insanity, and sent to a mental hospital where he got the care he needed. A riveting book.
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on April 18, 2000
Why aren't there more books like this? I heard about it on Fresh Air and have been surprised it hasn't been more widely reviewed. Does the Ny Times Book Review or the Washington Post or Newsweek or Time just not care about mental illness or Lachenmeyer's compelling story?
Anyway, I feel as if I have been searching for books like this my whole life. Both my mother and my sister suffer from schizophrenia and I have felt lost and alone. So many books seem to make fun of the illness, or to not really get it. By it I mean what it is like for the families of those who suffer.
Though this book is a wonderful first step, my own wish is personal. I wish for a book that really tells what it is like for family members who try to deal with a schizophrenic family member day in and day out. Lachenmeyer's book is a reconstruction. Lachenmeyer wa estranged from his father and journeys back to "find" his father posthumously. It's close, and compelling, but it doesn't adequately capture an experience that many of us must endure: daily care of a severly ailing family member. That said, this is a marvelous book and a tremendous first step to opening up a discussion of mental illness in this country.
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on October 3, 2001
Nathaniel Lachenmeyer's The Outsider - A Journey into My Father's Struggle with Madness is a unique book for many reasons. Written from the perspective of a hapless onlooker, it encompasses the full gamut of emotions suffered by the relatives of a person who is mentally ill. Furthermore, in the author's search for rhyme or reason for his father's demise the author eschews political grandstanding or heated rhetorical calls for "something to be done". Instead this is ultimately a book about acceptance - the acceptance of the vaguries of life, of the fact that nothing is guaranteed and ultimately, that sometimes when we face life's challenges we find ourselves incapable of rising to the occasion.
Written, as the title states, about the author's father's struggle with mental illness, the book also details the reaction of his family, his father's colleagues and the people: Social Workers, Caregivers and Cops, who came into contact with his father while he suffered from the illness which inevitably drove him onto the streets. In this the book is refreshingly frank - the author refrains from assigning blame and instead - perhaps as a result of his own lingering guilt over his own inability to deal with his father - examines the difficulty of dealing with a person suffering from mental illness. Lachenmeyer doesn't gloss over the conflicting emotions that people who deal with the mentally ill have, nor does he try to glorify those who are forced onto the streets because of it. Lachenmeyer is instead refreshingly unsparing in his examination of the problems associated with people suffering from mental illness, their impact of their illness on those around them and the questions surrounding how to adequately care for them.
Perhaps one of the most important points made throughout the book is about how so many mentally ill people end up on the street. Lachenmeyer is one of the few writers in this field to acknowledge that the whole concept of "deinstitutionalization", a hold-over from the ethos of the 1960's is largely responsible for the huge number of mentally ill homeless people on the streets today. In this Lachenmeyer definitely takes a chance at losing the part of his audience that is content to blame conservative governments and rapacious landlords for today's state of affairs. Further still, Lachenmeyer is surprisingly accepting of the role of police in dealing with the mentally ill, refraining from charged, politically-motivated commentary and instead accepting that the police too are responsible for, yet ill-equipped to deal with the mentally ill on the streets.
All too often reviewers label a book as "important". This is one of those books that truly is important; it is a sensitive, objective and heartfelt look at the problems surrounding mental illness and those that suffer it. Written with compassion and yet accurate in its analysis this book is an excellent reference source as well as an engaging and thought-provoking read. This book deserves a wide audience as it offers the potential to bring balance and objectivity to the on- going debate over the homeless and the mentally ill.It is definitely a must read for anyone who is even remotely associated with this issue. However, as a story alone it is one not to be missed
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on January 3, 2001
This is a well written, thoughtful investigation of a man's descent into the depths of mental illness. It is written by the son of the mentally ill man, after his father's death and is an attempt by the son to understand how a brilliant professor with a PhD in sociology could have wound up homeless in the frigid environs of a Vermont winter. Pieces of the puzzle of his life after the breakup of the father/ son relationship are put together with painstaking delicacy, and obvious pain on the part of the author, whose childhood companion and beloved 'Dad' turned into an object of fear and mystery. With the benefit of maturity, the son considers how his father survived and how he must have felt, experiencing all the heartbreak and suffering and terror of his decline. It helps him to examine letters his father sent him over the years, which he kept, as if holding onto a piece of the father he once knew and lost. His obvious regret over having severed relations with his father when the illness was in flower is acknowledged through this attempt to reconstruct his father's life during the "lost years". The only flaw that I would mention is the author's inference that his father's mental illness was somehow brought on by the way he was raised, in a strict, Christian-Scientist home by a strange, paranoid mother. Although this was no doubt an unhealthy environment to grow up in, it overlooks the explanation that severe mental illness such as paranoid schizophrenia is the result of "broken brain" and cannot be caused by good or bad parenting. Still, the book is a touching tribute and a realistic portrayal of the tragedy of schizophrenia, which has been called "the cruelest illness of all".
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on March 18, 2000
This book is absolutely necessary. Not only does Lachemeyer tell a compelling story of his own journey, but he tells a story about an illness that is often relegated to the shadows.
Schizophrenia affects over 1 percent of the world population. And, untreated or badly treated, it leaves not only it's victims ravaged, but loved ones and families as well. This disease can and does ruin millions of lives and may well be our number one national health care crises. Anyone who thinks that schizophrenia and its aftermath have nothing to do with them need only ask two or three friends if they know someone with this horrible disease. Odds are they do.
The saddest thing of all is that what happened to Lachenmeyer's father is a terribly common occurence. Nathaniel Lachemeyer deserves great praise for taking this journey, putting it on paper, and allowing us to read it. May it open the eyes of a nation.
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on November 1, 2005
I truly believe this book should be read by everyone, not just people that are going into the mental health field. I was required to ready it for a Social Work class I am currently taking at the undergraduate level; however, I can say without a doubt it is by far the best book I have ever read! Lachenmeyer really brings home the stigma and heartache that is experienced by people and their loved ones suffering from such a debilitating mental illness. Most people are unaware of the devastating effects mental illness can have on a person and their family. This book highlights so many issues concerning mental health as to responsibilities of people in the system, stigma, prejudice, and the tolerance of society in general to someone suffering from mental illness. Moreover, this book was really an awakening that this could happen to anyone at any time. I wish everyone could read this book as it really teaches a lesson on humanity!!
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on January 18, 2001
A memoir about a son's investigation into his father's downfall due to paranoid schizophrenia. A poignant look at the travails of the mentally ill in this country that made me think twice on subfreezing winter nights when I get to go inside a nice warm home. I was also touched by the themes of family and connectedness with humans, be they homeless, mentally ill, or just family members that we've lost touch with over the years.
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on April 25, 2000
Nathanial Lachenmeyer's book was an amazing read. Having a rather new but strong interest in schizophrenia as well as hearing the interview on FreshAir compelled me to buy this book. It opened many new doors for me as far as understanding the disease more. My step-father's brother has the disease. I've always wanted to have at least a small understanding of his behaviour. Thank God I was able to get a hold of this book. Not only does it tell the sad story of a man spinning downward (yet still holding his head high no matter how adverse his environment becomes) but it gives the reader a great understanding of the disease and statistics surrounding it as well. I still cannot get over how he was near death by starvation yet they held his SSI money. And it has to be mentioned when Charles Lachenmeyer was asked if he thought he were mentally ill, he stated that his mental illness was "love of life and humanity". Truly amazing!
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on January 11, 2003
Nicholas Lachenmeyer writes about his own father, Charles W. Lachenmeyer, Ph.D. - a sociologist, author and professor - and about his father's struggle with paranoid schizophrenia. This disease ended his career and ultimately led to indigence, homelessness, and death.
This is also a mystery book with homeless characters, but of the nonfiction variety. One mystery, which Nathaniel establishes early on, is the mystery of the circumstances of his father's death. Years after losing contact with his father, he learns that his father has died in an apartment in Burlington, Vermont, apparently well-off, but that just the year before he had been homeless.
How had his father's situation improved, so that he could be cleaned up and well dressed at the time of his death? What might have led to the heart attack that killed him?
But the real mystery for Lachenmeyer is the nature of his father's world. He follows every clue that he can find, interviewing case workers, police officers, shelter managers, security guards, former academic colleagues, other homeless people, anyone who might have some insight into the way his father lived toward the end of his life, and above all into how he thought about his life and his world.
Given that paranoid schizophrenia is so difficult to understand - even psychiatrists don't understand it very well - it's inevitable that The Outsider should be to a large extent about the changing attitudes of the author toward his subject. It is very compelling on that level.
Lachenmeyer does a good job of conveying how his fear and estrangement from his father evolves into deep respect for the dignity of his struggle. He comes to realize both the enormous obstacles that his father faced simply to survive, and the strength of character that he managed to maintain even when reality was most lost to him.
But the book is also a pleasure to read for the humor that emerges from the story along the way. I particularly enjoyed a transcript of some delightful exchanges as a judge orders Charles to appear for a hearing. When the state's attorney says, "You understand your obligation to appear at that time?" Charles answers with, "Sure. I'll be here in a three-piece suit with the Queen of England."
Of course he misses his court date, too busy simply trying to survive on the streets to pay attention to the calendar.
The only reservation I have about recommending The Outsider stems from the harsh treatment that Lachenmeyer gives his father's parents. I have the feeling that some of his initial intolerance of his father's condition may have been displaced to the grandparents, and to their Christian Scientist upbringing of Charles.
Still, I'd say read the book and accept that as part of evolution of Lachenmeyer's attitudes.
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