Book Review: Is There No Place on Earth for Me

 

Schizophrenia is a debilitating and frightening mental disorder that has the ability to tear apart the life of the person suffering from it and the lives of their family and loved ones.

In the late 1970s and 1980s, doctors frequently misdiagnosed or over-medicated patients they believed suffered from schizophrenia, and often consigned them to antiquated, understaffed, under-funded state mental institutions not unlike that depicted in the classic and cautionary book and film, One Flew Under the Cuckoo’s Nest.

In 1978, one reporter, Susan Sheehan, began an indepth look into the disorder and its treatment.  She devoted more than two years to the study of a single subject: A frequent inmate of Creedmoor Psychiatric Center in Queens, New York. That story of a young woman Sheehan called “Sylvia Frumkin” as told in her book, Is There No Place on Earth for Me?, remains the landmark study by which all subsequent works on schizophrenia are measured.

A Dedicated Journalist’s Intimate Portrait of a Troubled Woman

Sheehan was already an experienced and well-regarded journalist before she delved into the story of the schizophrenic young woman she dubbed with the pseudonym “Sylvia Frumkin.” The Austrian-born reporter had been writing for The New Yorker since 1961 when she became interested in Sylvia’s story in 1978. Sheehan spent much of the next two-and-a-half years by Sylvia’s side, even spending nights in a bed in Sylvia’s room at a psychiatric institution. Sheehan came to know her subject’s family and was considered a friend by both Sylvia and her family. As such, her portrait of Sylvia and her schizophrenia is both intimate and moving, and is more human than clinical in its telling.

From Magazine Article to Pulitzer Prize Winning Book 

Sheehan first pitched her idea for this story to her editor at The New Yorker, William Shawn, who ran it as a four-part series entitled “The Patient” in 1981. Sheehan later praised him as “the only editor in the world who would have let a writer try to write about such a sad and difficult subject and who would then have published a hundred thousand words on the subject.” A year later, Houghton Mifflin published an expanded version as a book, and in 1983 Sheehan won the Pulitzer Prize for non-fiction. Vintage Books, which produced a paperback version that year, reissued the book in a new printing in 2014, with a postscript. It is currently available from Amazon, Barnes and Noble and other major retailers in both print and electronic formats. 

A Schizophrenic’s Life – and State Institution Treatments Examined

Sheehan was very sympathetic to her subject’s plight. She recounted in great detail Sylvia’s experiences and rantings, including episodes in which Sylvia declared she was about to marry Geraldo Rivera, or Mick Jagger, or how she might take over the role of Wonder Woman on television from Lynda Carter. There are many warm and even gentle good-natured moments of humor in the book, but most of it is very dark.

Not since Nellie Bly did her expose of New York City mental institutions in the 1880s had a reporter gone into such detail about the way patients lived, were treated and at times even abused. Few doctors or their institutions come off well in Sheehan’s book, as many boast more about the number of prescriptions they have written or the times they have subjected patients to electroconvulsive or insulin coma therapies than about how many of their charges they have actually gotten better. Not all of the blame was placed at the feet of these doctors or their institutions, as Sheehan also wrote of how mental health care had evolved – or at times devolved – to the sad state in which it existed at the time when Sylvia Frumkin needed help.

The Real Sylvia Frumkin, R.I.P

In 1995, Sheehan wrote an article for The New Yorker entitled “The Last Days of Sylvia Frumkin.” In it she revealed the subject’s real name, Maxine Mason, and provided a look into Maxine’s later life and continuing treatment. In her article Sheehan described how she kept in contact with Maxine and her family, and how for a time Maxine was able to function on her own, with her own apartment – until eventually being rehospitalized. The article was more than just a follow-up to the book. It was also a eulogy, for Maxine died in November 1994 from a heart attack while under treatment for her schizophrenia in yet another state mental institution, Rockland Psychiatric Center.