Claire Phillips On Her Memoir of Her Mother’s Schizophrenia
Claire Phillips talks to us about A Room with a Darker View: Chronicles of My Mother and Schizophrenia
Content/Trigger Warning: schizophrenia, mental health, police violence
Claire Phillips’ elegantly written and unflinching memoir about her mother, an Oxford-trained lawyer diagnosed in mid-life with paranoid schizophrenia, challenges current conceptions about mental illness, relapse and recovery, as well as difficulties caring for an aging parent with a chronic disease. Told in fragments, the work also becomes a startling reflection on feminism’s evolution as seen through mother-daughter relationships.
Only with her mother’s final relapse at age 73 did the author begin to tell this story, first in Black Clock magazine, an essay for which she received a Pushcart nomination and notable mention in The Best American Essays 2015.
Phillips took the time to speak to us about A Room with a Darker View, the process of writing such a personal memoir, and the need for non-restitutive mental health stories.
A Room with a Darker View is a deeply personal and affecting story. What made you decide to write this memoir?
Through the difficulties of caring for my mother at the end of her life, when the administration of her medication was continually botched, I found the disconnection between doctors, hospitals and insurers too overwhelming and too frustrating to keep to myself. I had to speak out, even though secrecy had been integral to my family life. “You mustn’t talk to your teachers about us,” and other such admonishments — including to never tell our classmates or the neighbors that we were Jewish — had taken their toll. A strange guardedness undergirded my family life that extended itself to my mother’s mental health.
I wrote this book as a reflection of both my experience and that of my friends’, whose own family members were also struggling with appropriate care. I had no choice but to reconsider our struggles and to deeply research the history of mental health care and treatment in order to make sense of an unfolding calamity.
A Room with a Darker View is told in a fragmentary, episodic way. What was it about this style that you felt was particularly appropriate for this story?
My background in writing began with poetry at San Francisco State University. Ruthlessly spare prose has always been my preference in terms of a literary style. Memory is slippery. I don’t have the patience for recreating linear time. I am much more interested in how, as aptly described by critic Sven Birkets, “the gaps, the unreported years become an amplifying space.” In this way, fragments might actually work to tell a more complicated story through unspoken connections. In keeping with the suggestion of critic Cheryl Mattingly: “silences or half-told tales disclose more” than what we think of as those dutifully rendered.
A lyrical writing style did not seem correct either. My mother’s experience of psychosis was hardly a romantic one. Her illness did not render the world in bright kaleidoscopic colors, or bestow upon her a preternatural knowing. When her medication was not working, she battled with enormous perceived threats almost around the clock. She had tremendous stamina and fortitude not to become hopeless in the face of these unremitting horrors. Disruptions, secrets and incompatible realities are well served by a non-linear narrative, I feel.
Was there anything that surprised you about your experience of writing the book?
Writing this book, I was surprised by the abundance of literature on the subject as opposed to the early ’90s when I first learned of my mother’s diagnosis. At that time, the shelves at the library on the subject of schizophrenia were hardly bursting with literary first-person accounts, but today there is such a rich literature of schizophrenia, from memoir to literary creative nonfiction to historical accounts to medical literature, to critical theory, to young adult literature and fiction. Serial television is also another important source of information and understanding.
I also want to mention how surprised I am to learn how many people, including many of my students, are affected by a similar story. Either they are caring for someone struggling with a similar illness — what is called “the collected schizophrenias,” a term recuperated by author and critic Esmé Weijun Wang from the earliest definition of schizophrenia: bipolar disease, schizophrenia or schizoid affective disorder — or they are undergoing treatment themselves. There is a great urgency to impart and share these stories that are not restitutive in nature. Families struggle to find acceptance and medical care that is all too often difficult to access and at times grossly inadequate. Two weeks’ psychiatric care is often all our hospitals will provide those undergoing a mental health care crisis, which makes stabilization extremely difficult, because in reality recovery can take months.
When my mother’s struggle with schizophrenia became a terrible challenge for the second time in her life, in the 1970s, instead of receiving a diagnosis and treatment, her parents continued on as if everything were okay. Becoming a criminal defense lawyer in her mid-thirties had been no small feat. I realize it may have triggered the illness she experienced for the first time in the late ’50s while sitting for her final exams in law at Oxford. She excelled at hiding the debilitating symptoms from the outside world: the hallucinations, delusions, the sleepless nights, and mania. Through the writing, I came to understand how burdensome and frightening it was for her, and how it limited her potential. Despite being married to a world-class astrophysicist and despite being the daughter of a world-renowned medical doctor in Zimbabwe, she was never asked to see a psychiatrist. She was extremely bright, not an immediate threat to herself or her family, and frankly, the law was on her side. She was an extremely hard worker. She turned up to court on behalf of her clients, published appeals, passed Bar after Bar, often on her first try.
What would you like readers to take away from A Room with a Darker View?
A restitution narrative might posit the idea that after diagnosis and treatment there is a heroic return to normalcy. However, A Room with a Darker View is not just an illness narrative but also a bildungsroman that reflects the shadow side of a mother-daughter relationship constrained by the expectations of a patriarchal society, in which the ambitions of male family members come first, even before health.
I also see a strong connection between this work and Vivian Gornick’s feminist 20th century title, Fierce Attachments. Gornick demonstrates in wonderful fragmentary bursts how we daughters exist along a continuum with our mothers, however exhilarating or disappointing this trajectory may be. In my own case, my mother would often say such contradictory things: “I wish I had married someone rich,” while impugning housewives when she went back to work, “They have nothing interesting to say.” She was desperate to prove her worth in worldly terms, like her successful astrophysicist husband, yet she had no interest in or patience for other women, not until her marriage and professional life abruptly ended. This may be why independent women held such a lure for me from such a young age. It seemed insensible to want to excel professionally without making allies of other women.
Publishing this book now has also demonstrated for me that despite living on a tight budget and relying on low-income housing for her survival, my mother’s white privilege provided her with enough protection to thrive. If she were Black in the U.S. after undergoing as many relapses as she had, I don’t know that she would have had the same outcome. While writing this book, I felt so much bitterness that very often our family’s only means for securing help for my mother was to call 911 and have the police place my mother on a 5150 psychiatric hold. At the same time, I had to face the fact that BIPOC exhibiting signs of mental disorders are at an exceedingly higher risk for being killed, which we recently witnessed with the shooting by police of Walter Wallace Jr. in West Philadelphia, who was diagnosed with bipolar illness. Without question, a significant portion of our jail and prison populations struggle with untreated mental health disorders, and deserve care not criminalization.
As we know statistically according to NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) and documented by reports from the U.S. surgeon general, racial and ethnic minorities “have less access to mental health services than white people, are less likely to receive needed care and are more likely to receive poor-quality care when they are treated.” During Covid and post-Covid, we must work harder to establish community care for all members of our society. CAHOOTS, a model for police reform in Eugene, Oregon, that shifts the response to mental health calls from police to unarmed first responders is certainly a good first step.
A Room with a Darker View is available now via Doppelhouse Press.
Claire Phillips is the author of the novella Black Market Babies and recipient of the American Academy of Poets, First Prize. Her writing has appeared in Black Clock magazine, Largehearted Boy Blog, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and Motherboard-Vice among other places. She was nominated for the Pushcart Prize and received notable mention in The Best American Essays 2015. She teaches writing at CalArts, SCI-Arc, and U.C. Irvine, and is Director of the Los Angeles Writers Reading at Glendale College. She holds a M.A. in Creative Writing from New York University and a B.A. in English from San Francisco State University.