Our latest Notable Narrative, “When My Crazy Father Actually Lost His Mind,” is Jeneen Interlandi’s New York Times magazine story about an episode in her father’s debilitating bipolar disorder, and about deficiencies in the mental health system set up to help people like him. We admire the piece because it effectively uses the personal to illustrate a national crisis, and because it doesn’t flinch in the face of uncomfortable truths. Interlandi writes:
During the three months in which my father cycled through the system, he racked up five emergency room visits, four arrests, four court appearances, three trips to PESS and too many police confrontations to remember. He spent 25 (nonconsecutive) days in a psychiatric hospital and 40 in a county jail. The medical expenses alone — not including the police hours, jail time or court costs — ran upward of $250,000. These were costly months indeed — to the institutions forced to deal with him and, in more ways than one, to our family.
Interlandi alternates between her family’s history and that of a dangerously overburdened, underfunded mental health and criminal justice system. The personal narrative informs and balances out the public-sector story. You might think such a piece would be sorrowful through and through, but even in the midst of chaos Interlandi manages moments of levity, like one about Duke Ellington, and like this one, in which her father appears in court alone (his family is too afraid to join him) to defend himself:
Without his doctor or immediate family present, there was no one to describe the events leading up to his hospitalization or to explain the nature of his diagnosis. Instead, the argument hinged on a single line in a letter that my father wrote my mother from the hospital: “I will haunt you for all the rest of your life.”
“ ‘Haunt’ is a bad word?” my father asked. “It’s on the television every day.”
Interlandi does what the best explanatory-narrative writers do: lend human dimension and dramatic arc to large, complicated issues. You’ll need digital access to the Times in order to read this narrative (our links route through the log-in page), but it’s worth it. Check back tomorrow for our chat with Interlandi about this story.