All about My Mother

By Atkinson, Roland | Clinical Psychiatry News, May 2005 | Go to article overview

All about My Mother


Atkinson, Roland, Clinical Psychiatry News


"Out of the Shadow" and "Tarnation" are noteworthy documentaries in which filmmakers tell stories of their own mothers, each suffering from schizophrenia. These bold films share much common ground but differ radically in narrative style and aesthetics.

In both films we meet women who were once strikingly beautiful and full of promise, before their debilitating journeys through dark labyrinths of severe, persistent mental illness and dysfunctional public mental health systems. We grasp the hardships endured by the filmmakers when they were children being reared by psychotic mothers. We observe the steadfastness, compassion and burden of responsibility that mark the relationships between these adult children and their mothers today. Both films are honest and unencumbered by self-pity, mawkishness, or manipulation. Here the similarities end.

"Out of the Shadow," directed by Susan Smiley, a veter an television documentarist, recounts the problems her mother Millie's illness has posed--for herself as well as for Susan, her younger sister Tina, and others. The film is quite short (67 minutes), yet the important issues concerning the experience and consequences of schizophrenia are illuminated with clarity and authenticity in an unhurried manner. Old family photos and home movies are nicely intercut with recent scenes and interviews. Direct audio is supplemented by Susan Smiley's narrative voiceovers. This is a skillful, straightforward documentary production, made with remarkable economy.

Millie's Descent

Millie was 25 when she first showed signs of schizophrenia, shortly after Susan's birth. Her erratic behavior led Susan's father to divorce Millie, leaving her to care for Susan and Tina, aged 3 years and 1 year. Millie often beat Susan, who was more defiant, while Tina shielded herself through ingratiation. After Susan left when she was 12 to live with her father, Tina bore the brunt of Millie's rages.

The girls wouldn't tell anyone how bad things could get at home, fearful that their mother might actually kill them. And Millie had periods of ostensible normality. It was easy for the other adults to deny the extent of the problem for years, a situation that changed only after Tina attempted suicide in early adolescence.

What ensued was a wretched 20-year journey for Millie and her daughters, a course that is familiar to many families with a loved one suffering from severe chronic schizophrenia: 17 hospitalizations, 40 or more living places, no employment, frequent brief periods of homelessness, a serious suicide attempt, a cycle of ever-changing mental health providers and constantly revised medication regimens.

Meanwhile, the girls grew up. Susan moved to Los Angeles to make films. Tina married and moved to another state. Their efforts to keep track of their mother were often frustrated, not only by Millie's erratic movements, but also by regulations that prohibited caregivers from sharing information about her whereabouts or condition without Millie's written consent, which she refused. Millie received care within a system Susan accurately describes as "fractured."

Susan's restraint--her canny ability to avoid ax-grinding harangues, instead simply showing us over and over again how the system fails to work--is remarkable. (Though Millie lives in Illinois, the "system" there functions about like that in any other state.)

We don't just see Millie as a patient, a collection of symptoms and social conundrums. Susan is careful to show us the brighter, more charming, "normal" side of her mother, who is still capable on her good days of conveying the soft, endearing aspect of her personality. We do see how emotionally changeable, how mercurial, she can be.

Light at the End of the Tunnel

There is a happy ending, and it is not contrived. In fact it is a product of long, hard work by Susan and Tina, and also some simple good luck. …

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