Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Patrick Tracey's "Stalking Irish Madness": Book Review.

Since my family comes from around the same area in the Irish west, I was curious to follow Bostonian native Tracey "searching for the roots of my family's schizophrenia." It's what he defines poetically as "an apocalyptic form of madness because it robs its victim of our most precious human gift: the ability to separate the real world from the unreal and to trust one's own thoughts as true." (10)

Two of his sisters, his uncle, his grandmother, and her grandmother in turn had been struck by this affliction in their young adulthood. Mixing his personal saga with encounters with those who share the illness and those who argue-- variously-- how to cope with its assaults, Tracey witnesses New Age-aligned healers, medical professionals (who turn out to know much less than one might expect), and those who guard their own family's similar secrets. He follows the history of the disease in Ireland, and integrates smoothly much of the nation's history and trauma on an island-wide level with the impact felt on the domestic and institutional fronts over centuries. Tracey wonders if the legend that the Irish have been so cursed more than other peoples can be validated by genetic research, so he embarks on a quest to Ireland to investigate.

He begins his account with a look at his two sisters and what he knows of his family's previous incidents; he blends his own memoir with a commendable combination of tact and candor. He's excellent at gleaning what separates Irish Americans, in turn, from those born there, and his chapter about a night in a Co. Roscommon pub masterfully sums up the cultural and attitudinal gaps between those from America who assume that a surname and a few half-remembered first names from an withered family tree will somehow open up vistas of happy long-lost cousins eager to shower affection and land upon the Returning Yank. Such sharp observations throughout the book demonstrate Tracey's experience as a journalist able to probe and hold back according to the flow of the conversation with those he interviews.

As mental illness makes such an unlikely icebreaker to raise in talking to those to whom Tracey suspects, on the scant evidence extant, he may be related, the search for his family's direct roots proves less than certain. Along the way, he does a more valuable service for his readers wanting to know if there's some genetic bubble in the Irish gene pool. Earlier scholars and popular gossip appear, Tracey concludes after a tour of the experts, who themselves to date still find little to confirm their own conflicting hypotheses, that every people has the disease at the same rate. However, he does note that while "correlation is not causation," you can find four common links within populations of schizophrenics worldwide: "emigration, famine, substance abuse, and older fathers." (199) Nancy Scheper-Hughes controversially earlier investigated the supposed ties between the malady and and peasants in her 1979 "Saints, Scholars, and Schizophrenics: Mental Illness in Rural Ireland." Very strangely, this study's not mentioned by Tracey.

This gap confused me. I also wondered why, in discussions of the shamanistic parallels or those of left-brain language vs. right brain evolution, why Julian Jaynes' bicameral mind theory-- however lambasted by the establishment it may have been-- was not raised in context. Tracey does give endnotes for his sources, but these too prove somewhat scattershot. For example, he cites "Ulysses" and "Finnegans Wake" with page numbers without editions, contrary to scholarly convention, so no reader could easily find these quotes, albeit well-chosen ones.

He errs in small details such as giving the pronunciation for Cruachan Uí but he does not give the second word of the place name to match the parenthetical reference; while his rendering of Irish-language words generally fares better, he conveys the well-known phonetic sounds for the Gaelic words for whiskey without the actual Irish original. He also misspells "An Gorta Mór" and leaves accents out here and there. I'm not sure that historians would label all of the admittedly heinous Black & Tans recruited by the British Army after WWI to hunt Irish rebels as "Scottish thugs"-- Tracey may be conflating their wearing of the tam-o'shanter by Constabulary auxilaries with an assumed unified origin in Britain. You won't find any County "Wickford" on a map, either.

Still, these minor quibbles do not detract from the success of a narrative that draws vividly Tracey's own "lace curtain" family dynamic. While at the end the tone does soften from the previously formidable punch of personal drama and demographic devastation, it's an understandable retreat into a measure of carefully distilled hope after a couple hundred pages of often dispiriting reports, as even the world's brightest minds appear as befuddled as medieval monks when dealing with this perplexing set of shifting symptoms.

One of his sisters bears "positive" traits that spin her manically. The other, "negative," crumples under catatonia. Here's a dramatic example from sister Chelle, who hears voices telling her she's a bride of Christ.
"The eleven-o'clock Mass is under way, most pews filled, as Chelle strides, fully naked but with perfect aplomb, up the center aisle. Nearly to the altar, she spins around to face the shocked congregation. 'You bastards,' she snarls, 'that's my husband you're worshipping.'" (43)

He's skilled at telling enough to illuminate while stepping back into the shadows when tact demands. I recognize a lot, especially the passive-aggressive silences that represent for a certain generation of Irish Americans parental communication. I'd have liked to hear much more about his mother the lawyer, his father the religious-goods wheeler-dealer, and the author's own period down and out in Boston, DC, and London, but that may have to wait for a fuller sequel, perhaps. He's a nimble storyteller, refusing to bow to any clichés of mad drunks or plastic Paddies. I look forward to hearing more from him.

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