Saturday, July 26, 2014

Book Review: The Price of Silence by Liza Long

27. The Price of Silence: A Mom's Perspective on Mental Illness by Liza Long

Let me start this review by stating that I am incredibly sympathetic to Liza Long's position. Along with the rest of us, I read "I Am Adam Lanza's Mother" in the wake of the Newtown tragedy. We were all struggling to understand, and Long gave us a small window into an unforgiving existence. Her story is a story that needed to be told, because it affects so many, and because so many of us want to pretend it doesn't.

So when I saw her book available on LibraryThing's Early Reviewer books, I volunteered to review it. I received the book promptly, before I even knew I'd been selected to review it, and dove in. Unfortunately, this book is not the sequel to Long's viral post. Instead, it's a long-winded mishmash of incredibly important topics. It seems that in her rush to expound on all the issues she faces, and the research, and the statistics, she forgot (mostly) the human voice that made her original post so strong. I want to know more about Michael. I want to know more about Liza. And in caring for them, I want to care for other people like them. Instead, Long focused on the nitty gritty facts and facets of the mental illness plight in America, which while entirely deserving of attention, is not as captivating.

Long states in her Introduction that she is "writing for two very different audiences. The first audience knows mental illness and lives with it every day...But I am also writing for a second audience, an audience that is surprised to learn that one in five children in the United States has a serious and debilitating mental disorder, an audience that believes mental illness is something we still shouldn't talk about except behind closed doors." She succeeds in appealing to the first audience, and certainly intriguing the second, though she should consider being more aware of their battles as well. For instance, her empathy with other mothers of children with mental disorders, even including the “infamous” Jenny McCarthy, is legion-“I have a tough time criticizing any mother who makes significant sacrifices [to treat a child in a private, unregulated program] and feels that it worked for her child.” (120). However, her sympathy for mothers of children with physical illnesses is jaded by what she views as an unfair playing field. While her fears are not unfounded, it is ironic and potentially hurtful when she claims that, “If your child had a persistent stomachache, you would expect your doctor to be able to diagnose that condition with a high degree of certainty in a fairly short period of time…Within the space of hours, days, or, worst-case scenario, weeks, you would know what you and your child were facing.” (66) While she may be right about expectations, her declaration is a slap in the face to parents and children who spend months or years investigating physical conditions with no good diagnosis. It is not only parents or patients dealing with mental disorders who share that particular pain. Personally, I complained of severe stomach ailments for three years before I was correctly diagnosed with serious gallstones and inflammation of the gallbladder that required immediate surgery. As a young teen, I was shuffled among doctors for months with my muscle pains before being diagnosed with fibromyalgia.

This is not a one-off moment either. It is one of the themes that she returns to again and again without benefit of insight. Other, more helpful themes include mother-blame (the term “Refrigerator Mothers” is oft-evoked as an example), the dangers of psychotropic drugs, the correlation between mental disease and poverty (not her own experience), the “school to prison” pipeline for behaviorally disturbed students, and the high costs and low availability of long-term mental health care (her most salient point). But, overall, Long consistently rails that mental diseases are not accorded the same attention as physical ones…I think the answer is more complicated. More complicated diseases are not accorded the same attention as more simple ones—and that’s because of what’s easier to understand or treat, not because of prejudice. Now, I am not denying that mental health stigma exists, Long’s story is proof enough. But the prejudice that she sees in the medical world may be more from an inability to understand these illnesses properly than some sort of conspiracy to leave needy children untreated.

Some of her information, especially on how many mentally ill children are sent to jail, is staggering-and therefore important. As she sets out to do, she’s putting out information that the general public does not often see. The Price of Silence is an important read because it’s new in popular non-fiction. But as a written work, it suffers from common features of such books. It drags, it’s repetitive, and it lacks a compelling narrative. This is where Long’s personal story, so effective in her famous blog post, should have starred. Instead, she uses her own experience in brief anecdotes between information dumps and well-meant rants. The more compelling story would have been a fuller portrait of her life and her son, with the information dispersed in more palatable drops. She makes tantalizing references to stories, such as when a friend advised her to seek custody of her sons, or when a leading psychologist responded to her blog post and she took him up on his diagnostic offer. But these events pass without further description, and that’s a shame. Part of Long’s goal is not only to speak for parents like her, whom she certainly vindicates in every possible way, but to explain to those families who are not like hers what her experience is. While the research and statistics she uses are troubling, she misses an opportunity to let this audience more viscerally share her experiences.

Received for review via LibraryThing

1 comment:

Daniel Fisher said...

An excellent review. Thanks for that. It is unfortunate how people get jaded to the relatively similar plight of others (mental v physical) when pretty much no one has an easy life and we need more empathy, not less.