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Poet Finds Catharsis Writing About Mother's Schizophrenia
Psychiatric News
Volume 41 Number 24 page 26-26
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Michael Mack is a poet and performer who uses his art to give form to his feelings about having a mother with schizophrenia and in so doing educates his audiences about the devastating illness.  Courtesy of Michael Mack

The room darkens, and sad, frightening voices echo through the air. Mixing light and shadow with the skills of an actor and the voice of a poet, Michael Mack brings the sensations of schizophrenia to his listeners.

The experience is not his directly, but that of his mother, whose schizophrenia was diagnosed when Michael was 5 years old. Yet the story is his, too. What child wouldn't be affected by the inexplicable behavior of his or her mother?

Luckily for him and his audiences, Mack was not shackled by his childhood. As an adult, he transformed the central experience of that time into a one-man performance that enlightens patients and clinicians, as well as people who have never seen mental illness firsthand.

"This has been a tremendously cathartic experience," Mack, 49, told Psychiatric News. "It keeps the memory of my mother alive, and it's a kind of mission, opening people's minds."

Patients hear his work as their story. "It's an emotional event for them," he said. "It's a human story about a human tragedy that ends up with a hopeful message."

Mack grew up in the Maryland suburbs of Washington, D.C., the oldest of four children his parents had in the first five years of their marriage. Years later, he listened to his father tell the story of how he came home to find Michael's mother in tears and asking if she was the Blessed Virgin (see box). She was diagnosed with schizophrenia. In periods of remission, she was a kind and attentive mother, but when the illness returned, her behavior could threaten and disturb her children.

Once, she gave a party for neighborhood children, handing out cigarettes and giving away toys belonging to Michael and his siblings.

"I remember it being a real fun party, but at the same time having the feeling that something was really wrong," he recalled.

The family exhausted its insurance benefits as Mack's mother moved through hospitals and other facilities around Washington. Eventually, the parents divorced, and Michael's mother spent the last years of her life in a group home in Baltimore, where she died of cancer in 2002. She never saw his performances but expressed surprise that anyone might be interested in her experiences. His father has seen (and responded positively to) the piece several times and has brought friends to see it.

"I think it has helped him to see how we saw the situation as children," said Mack.

After high school, Mack served in the Air Force, attended community college, and then went to Sloan School of Business at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. His march toward a conventional career detoured into the arts when he signed up for a course in poetry taught by Pulitzer Prize-winner Maxine Kumin. For the first time in his life, Mack poured his memories and feelings about growing up with his mother onto paper. He became Boston's poetry slam champion. He switched his major to creative writing and graduated in 1988. Since then, he has worked as a technical or freelance writer, but his personal and professional focus has been "Hearing Voices (Speaking in Tongues)," the one-man show that he presents around the country. His big break came in 1997, when an advocate for people with mental illness heard Mack recite his poetry and invited him to speak to the Boston chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

As he began writing, Mack went back to the events of his childhood and began to see them in a different way, experiencing them as an adult, not as a child. He came to understand what his mother and father did and why they did it. When he was young, he felt cheated out of his childhood and was angry at his parents, he said. But in writing the poetry that became his program's script, he came to understand how they had responded as best they could to the circumstances of their lives.

Mack never gives the same presentation twice. Each little scene-poem is a story in itself. He selects elements to construct an essential story that varies with the place and the audience.

For a general audience, he might have a "doctor" character describe symptoms of schizophrenia, but leave that out when performing for a more knowledgeable professional audience. Even they glean value from his show, however. After a performance at McLean Hospital near Boston, staff members came up to him and told him that seeing the performance was a way for them to reconnect with the fundamental reasons they went into the mental health field, said Mack.

"The performance helped them see the human cost of mental illness and how they can help," he said.

He recently gave two performances in Rochester, N.Y., the first in a large auditorium for the general public and mental health care consumers. There, he performed for an hour and a half, enhancing the show with all the lighting and sound technology the theater had to offer. Later, before a smaller group of patients at the Rochester Psychiatric Center, he pared the performance down to 30 minutes of material that spoke directly to that specialized audience.

For most audiences, he dramatizes auditory hallucinations by immersing the stage in total darkness for more than two minutes while speaking in the voices that reflect psychosis. However, for patients, he may ask for the lights to be lowered rather than turned off and ask the patients to close their eyes to lessen the chance of fearful reactions. In either case, patients have told him how much they appreciated his giving voice to what they have gone through.

Performing for audiences of patients, psychiatrists, and mental health professionals has led to another kind of insight, said Mack. His recent presentation at the rochester Psychiatric Center entailed his first visit to a state psychiatric hospital since he visited his mother in an aging, dingy facility 20 years before.

"What a change!" he said. "I was so impressed with the building and how patients and staff interacted."

One of Michael Mack's poems about his mother is posted at<www.americamagazine.org/poem.cfm?articleTypeID=25&textID=3741&issueID=495>.

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Michael Mack is a poet and performer who uses his art to give form to his feelings about having a mother with schizophrenia and in so doing educates his audiences about the devastating illness.  Courtesy of Michael Mack

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