Serendipitously, the day I finally dived in to promoting my first book, Child of Silence (FREE for one more day, Sunday, Feb. 19, for your Kindle or Kindle app, click here ) I received a copy of Mystery Scene Magazine in which there’s a reprise of an interview we did five years ago. It’s primarily about the Bo Bradley Mystery Series, and reading it made me wonder how much has changed.
Bo’s job as a child abuse investigator (a job I once held) is brutal, but it pales in comparison to her struggle with a psychiatric disorder (a struggle also of my family member) and its associated stigma. The Bo Bradley novels were meant to diminish that stigma by helping readers understand and identify with a character who actually has one of the three major psychiatric disorders – schizophrenia, clinical depression and manic depression. Bo lives with manic depression, or bipolar disorder. She usually takes her meds (but not always) and battles the bureaucratic system for which she works and an uber-bureaucratic supervisor, to save children while incessantly watching herself for the every-threatening symptoms that can make her life a mess.
At the time, popular fiction was rife with ghastly misrepresentations of psychiatric illnesses and indeed anything connected to psychiatry, including psychiatrists! There were countless “escaped lunatics, psycho killers and deranged madmen” stalking the pages of thrillers, and absent those, the bloodthirsty killer was not infrequently a demonic psychiatrist (in tweed and a Freudian goatee). Terms like “crazy, insane, schizo and loony” were lavishly used in lieu of any character development whatever. People who did bad stuff like plotting complex serial murders were always “crazy,” creating in the popular mind the idea that “craziness” always means plotting complex serial murders.
Here’s a story. A friend was approached at a bus stop by an obviously mentally ill man. He said he needed food. She gave him a five dollar bill and nodded toward a MacDonald’s across the street. But he was too lost and confused. He tried to eat the five dollar bill.
This is the man hundreds of mystery thrillers described as heading corporations, traveling the world and romancing svelte models until he cut out their hearts and buried their bodies in pieces near familiar landmarks. An impossible scenario, but readers loved this stuff and internalized its message – “mental illness means irrational violence.”
Except it doesn’t. Mental illness means having a hell of a hard time with everything. Mental illness means having to take meds that make you fat, groggy and out of it. It means confusion, rejection and loneliness. Yes, there’s an occasional event in which someone in a psychotic episode commits a horrible act. But statistically, people with serious psychiatric disorders are vastly more likely to be victims of violent crime than to be perpetrators. Unfortunately, “Homeless Man Found Beaten to Death Under Bridge” doesn’t capture much media attention.
Bo Bradley and her adventures were meant to help change all that, and with many others working to diminish psychiatric stigma, there have been some changes. Psychiatric meds are now advertised on TV along with Viagra and Weight Watchers. Many people are more knowledgeable, comfortable and sympathetic in regard to psychiatric diagnoses and treatment. In Boston not long ago I was walking up Beacon Hill behind two young, professional men. They were talking about a co-worker who was behaving strangely. “I think he’s stopped taking his meds,” one said. No jokes, no sneering censure, just the statement. “Probably,” the other one said. “It can happen. Let’s try to talk to him about it.” They were kind and I had to fight tears. So things are a little better.
But not better enough. The most recent Reader’s Digest had emblazoned on its cover – “Are You Nuts?” The article inside outlined which slightly eccentric behaviors are okay and one behavior that might mean you, um, well, might seek professional help. Not a bad idea, but “Nuts”? There are still countless “Manic Monday Happy Hours,” “schizophrenic” politicians and straitjacket jokes. The stigma’s still around.
And so is Bo Bradley. Her books are alive and well in new ebooks that I hope will continue to diminish the stigma and provide a halfway realistic role model for the thousands whose lives are affected by psychiatric disorders they didn’t choose and cannot escape. I may even write another one.