On May 13, 1993, Melvin Toews, a
retired elementary school teacher in the Canadian province of Manitoba, threw
himself in front of a train, putting an end to a life-long struggle with
bipolar disorder. In the aftermath of his suicide his daughter Miriam took upon
herself the task of elucidating his life and demonstrating its worth. In a
first-person memoir written in the hospital during his last episode of illness,
she has him tell the story he would have told if he had not been so habitually
withdrawn and unable to open up about his emotional pain.
The fact that the memoir works, and
that the mans character comes alive suggests that, even though Melvin was
silent at home much of the time, there were points of connection with his
family, primarily with his extravert, life-loving wife Elvira, who kept things
upbeat, but also with Miriam, his rebellious, creative daughter. Also, he was a
saver and meticulous record keeper, and so he left many mementos. And during
his final depression Miriam sat by his bedside and helped him write down his
thoughts as he tried to reconnect with reality.
The miracle is that his life held
together for so long and that he accomplished so many important, normal things.
He had his first breakdown at the age of 17. Nevertheless, despite his
psychiatrists warnings, he managed to get married, raise a family, teach
school for more than forty years, and contribute steady service to church and
community. And then it all unraveled.
The memoir puts out clues to the
development of the fault lines in his personality. One likely source of trauma
was the insensitivity of a mother whose own severe emotional problems had been
ignored in their practical, non-introspective Mennonite community, and whose
alcoholism was covered up for many years because of the social stigma it would
have attracted. The fall-out was an intense sibling rivalry with the younger
brother who stole his mothers affections.
Melvins solution was to throw
himself into his work. He found in teaching a vital role that allowed him to
step outside himself, and it sustained him for many years. He was an exuberant
teacher, respected and loved by generations of students. But his self-distrust
and anxiety did not go away, and retirement deprived him of his protective
cover. The memoir is an indictment of a culture that failed both generations by
encouraging the papering over of emotional distress.
A secondary theme is a complaint
against a health care system that treated serious mental illness superficially
over many years. Melvin visited his psychiatrist regularly, but apparently
received only medicines and routine monitoring. In retrospect, Miriam wishes he
could have been encouraged to confront his problems more intensively. The
small-town general hospital was totally unequipped to handle serious
Low is a moving story. It is also part of a growing literature of
first-person accounts of mental illness. Such memoirs are valuable because they
force us to imagine what it would feel like to suffer from such a disorder.
Making this effort of the imagination helps break down the illusory distinction
between us and them, the so-called normal and the mentally ill.
2002 Marion Torchia
Marion Torchia earned a masters
degree in applied and professional ethics from the University of Maryland in
Baltimore. She has held positions in several Washington DC health and
behavioral health associations. She is interested in the moral dimensions of
our attitudes towards mental illness and addiction.
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