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July 03, 2006
Michael Mack's Hearing Voices (Speaking in Tongues) -- A Poetic Performance about Schizophrenia
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Michael Mack is a man with a passion for creating good art, good theater, and good poetry -- and at the same time is educating people about the challenges of growing up with a mother suffering from schizophrenia.
A graduate of Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Michael has for the past decade been delivering a monologue about his experiences. We encourage you to attend his performance if you are close to any of the city where he is touring. Michael is an inspiration for us all!
We caught up with Michael a few months ago by email - below is our interview with him, and more details on his performances. We've also included a link to on-line audio interview with him, and examples of his poetry. If you are a child of a parent who suffers from schizophrenia - we encourage you to join in our discussion group for Offspring of Parents with schizophrenia - and share your experiences and discuss your thoughts on Micheal Mack's performances and poetry.
Michael Mack's web site - is where you can learn more about his performance schedule, or contact him.
What the Press is saying about Michael Mack's performances:
The NAMI Advocate:
Mack's performance is intense, heartbreaking, funny, and heartwarming as it depicts the effects of mental illness on a family. It resonates deeply with his audiences and inspires many to share their own experiences. It’s important, says Mack, to “bear witness” and seek redemption from the past.
The Boston Globe:
Michael Mack grew up in a shadow. It is a shadow that falls on one out of every five families in this country, but it has the strange power of making every person it touches feel, in its darkness, utterly alone.
The Star Tribune:
Now in his 40s and living in Boston, Mack would certainly grant all these points. But this performer isn't really an evangelist. He's a true lyricist -- a protégé of Irish Nobel-winner Seamus Heaney and Pulitzer-winner Maxine Kumin -- and his offering this weekend brims with poetry, not proselytism. It tells an untellable tale of human pain and transcendence -- reminding us all of what we secretly know o be true: Some among us hear voices, and we must not cast them away.
The Boston Sunday Globe:
Mack considers addressing the illness publicly an important part of overcoming negative perceptions. "When we were growing up, there was a tremendous amount of shame around it," he said. "I think there is less stigma these days, but there is still a lot," he said.
I'm not sure where to begin, but perhaps – since it obviously relates to your performance – you could tell us a bit about your early life and the events that led ultimately to your one-man show.
When I was five years old, my family was living in Tacoma Park just outside Washington DC. My mother and father had just bought their first home. They were both in their late twenties, and had been married for about seven years.
I was the oldest of four kids. In fact, my mother had just given birth to her fourth child – my baby sister. My mother was still in the hospital after the delivery when she had her first psychotic break. It came to her with the force of a divine revelation. She became convinced that her doctor was Jesus Christ.
It was a frightening, bewildering experience, but it passed. She was diagnosed with postpartum psychosis – not uncommon for a woman who has just given birth – and everyone assumed that was the end of it.
Six weeks later, my father came home from the grocery store and found my mother on the stairs, sobbing. She was inconsolable, and when he calmed her down enough that she could speak, she gave him the strangest look. She asked him if her face had changed. She asked if she was the Blessed Virgin.
My father said the hair stood up on the back of his neck.
Those are some very compelling events. What happened?
My mother was diagnosed with schizophrenia, and was hospitalized for the first of what would be many times in many different hospitals. In years to come, the diagnosis would alternate with bipolar disorder and schizoaffective disorder, but schizophrenia was primary. For us, her family, what mattered wasn't what it was called, but what it meant.
What did it mean?
It meant that the next few years were pretty chaotic. At times she'd be the mother we knew before she became ill – careful, quiet, doting – and at other times she was someone very different.
I remember an afternoon that she invited the neighborhood kids over to our home and gave them all our toys. To us – her kids – she gave cigarettes (I think she believed they would help make us strong and healthy).
I have a clear memory of running down the hallway as fast as I could with a cigarette between my fingers. It was a wild afternoon, and I felt that our mother must be a really special person. But I also felt that something was wrong.
I don't remember what my father said when he came home that night, but he's often said that he never knew what he'd come home to. Sometimes that she'd disappeared – had left us kids alone in the house and wandered off. Sometimes she'd be picked by the police in Washington DC.
She was never violent when she wasn't well, but she could be loud, insensitive, neglectful, or might simply make no sense. Once she was so ill that she could barely put a sentence together. Her words came out scrambled – a word salad.
My father did a lot to try and keep the house in order when she had an episode – to whisk her off to the hospital – but he had a job, he was the sole provider, and could only be home so often.
When my mother was in the hospital? A series of nannies that came and went. For awhile we even stayed at an orphanage. We'd live there during the week, come home for the weekend, and then go back on Sunday afternoon.
I still have a clear image of one of those Sundays – we kids at the orphanage gate with our fingers hooked in the fence, wailing as our father walked away. It was awful. None of us could take it – especially him – so it didn't last long, just a few weeks.
What kind of professional care did your mother receive?
Everything imaginable – shock therapy (ECT), vitamin therapy, batteries of medications . . . she'd be treated for several weeks, would come back home for several weeks, but eventually she'd relapse and go back to hospital.
When she first became ill, she was treated at private hospitals, but within a few months, the only care my father could afford was through the state hospital system. State hospitals weren't very pleasant, but they were the only real option.
My father's work offered health insurance that was pretty typical of those times. Which meant that acute psychiatric care was covered for exactly one month. (Can you believe it?!) After that, the bottom dropped out. He went deep into debt paying for care.
We lost our house because he couldn't make the mortgage payments. An uncle in Baltimore had a small apartment, so we moved there. It was cramped at first – we kids slept in what would have been the living room.
It sounds like your mother's illness put a tremendous stress on your family.
After she first became ill, we lived together as a family for another five years. But it couldn't last – my father felt that her behavior was having a bad effect on us kids, so he separated from her. After that, he raised us with the help of an aunt.
Even though they were separated, my father was very dutiful about giving her financial and other support, and he visited her regularly. When I was old enough, I'd join him on those long drives to the hospital.
It was a hard thing for a kid to see. The state hospitals seemed run down, and often crowded. I couldn't understand why she had to be in a place like that. And often she was so heavily medicated she seemed like a shell of herself.
Riding back home, I'd feel really sad at leaving her behind, and that brought a special closeness to my father. Riding home in the front seat next to him, I'd ask him to tell me the story of how it all happened.
He'd tell how they first met, how they married, about their plans when they first started out, and then how she became ill. I couldn't have expressed it then, but I found this storytelling to be healing. A way to be closer to my father, but also a way to imagine the lives they lived before she became ill. It became a ritual for us on those long drives home – this storytelling.
Clearly your mother wasn't available for you kids in a way that most mothers are. What did you think about that – both when you were young and later as an adult?
When I was a kid, I had nothing to compare to – I didn't really know how other families lived.
But I didn't see any other mothers acting like ours. Sometimes that made her seem fun and special. Other times . . . I didn't even want to be seen with her. Once on a school bus, I even denied that I knew her. We didn't talk about it outside the family.
What happened to your mother after she and your father separated?
She lived like a lot of people with schizophrenia. After being released from the state hospital, she'd live at a halfway house, or a group home, or in an apartment with another ex-patient.
With regular therapy and medication, she'd live a pretty stable life for awhile. I have many wonderful memories of visiting her when she shared an apartment in Baltimore – going to the circus, the zoo, a night game at the baseball stadium, taking long walks around the city . . . .
But sooner or later, she'd become convinced that knew the true cause of her illness – it was the medication! (No surprise, given the side effects of some of those earlier medications.) So she'd stop talking them.
Within a few weeks, she'd be living on the street as a homeless person. When I was older, I'd sometimes visit her on the street – often meeting in front of the White House.
Eventually she'd be picked up by the police for some misdemeanor – once throwing doughnuts at passing cars because they disturbed the pigeons. The police would take her back to the state hospital, and the cycle would begin again.
How long did that cycle repeat itself?
A couple of decades, I think. But in her early fifties, her life began to change. She entered into a kind of grace, if I could put it that way – largely through the work of two outstanding group homes in Baltimore.
The first was a Catholic charity called "My Sister's Place." It offered housing and care for about a dozen women. It was clean and safe, and provided our mother with her first really stable home since she had lived with us years before.
She lived there for about ten years, and would have stayed longer except that the house caught fire and burned down. Everyone had to move.
Incredibly, my mother's social worker found her an even better place! It was run by a couple of middle aged guys. One of them had his three young sons from a previous marriage also living there, so it was a lot like a family.
The place was exceptional. The guys took great pains to make my mother feel at home, and to teach her a new, non-institutional way of living. They bought her new clothes, fixed up her hair . . . . There wasn't the "us and them" mentality that you can find in more institutional settings. Everybody ate at the same table.
It sounds like your mother's life improved dramatically. But you had a pretty chaotic life growing up. Do you ever feel that you missed out on your childhood?
When I was younger I did, and my siblings felt similarly. I was angry at everybody – my mother, my father, the system – but I had no idea how common mental illness is. People didn't talk about it, so I thought that what had happened to my family was unique.
My feelings changed when I started writing about my mother. I began to understand her life – and my father's – in ways I hadn't before. Neither of them had asked for what happened. Writing about their lives, I began to understand why they did what they did.
Now I see my childhood as a kind of gift – an opportunity to tell a meaningful story in the same way that my father told me his story on those long drives back from the hospital. And find in that telling a kind of healing.
Storytelling may be the oldest form of art. It has a transformative power. My work has been to use it to transform a personal tragedy into something meaningful, even beautiful. Initially, in writing it, just for me. But now in performing it, I invite others to share in it too.
Based on what you've shared, I'd guess the play must be pretty intense at times.
There are intense scenes, but there are also many funny scenes, and scenes of delight and tenderness. For all the difficulties growing up, there were also times that are precious to me – times I'd never want to forget. The play needs those moments too.
Your play is called Hearing Voices (Speaking in Tongues). Does your title have a special meaning?
My mother was a lifelong Roman Catholic, and my father had recently converted to Catholicism, so we kids were raised in a religious household. When my mother first became ill, religious symbolism took on a special – even overwhelming – significance.
But that was also true of many saints in the Catholic tradition. If alive today, many of those saints would be diagnosed with schizophrenia or some other mental illness.
My father once told me that one of his greatest struggles as a Catholic – especially one who had just converted – was that my mother was experiencing signs similar to those of many early saints. Saints that he and other Catholics revered.
But it's one thing to read about a saint from ages past receiving divine visitations, and quite another to be living with a spouse who claims the same thing.
What's interesting to me is that many of those early saints played a valuable role in society, and often because of their otherworldly experiences. Their "voices and visions" suggested a special connection with the divine – gateways between the heavenly and earthly worlds.
It sounds like they had an important place in your life too.
I've always been keen on the spiritual and mystical traditions. Partly, I think, because of my mother's illness. I'm especially interested in the relationship between madness and mysticism – that gray area between the psychotic episode and the transcendent religious experience. The two can be difficult to tease apart. The play tries to reflect that.
Obviously, growing up with a mother with schizophrenia was the foundation for your work, but how did you transform those early events into this play, this monologue? What prompted you to start writing it?
It was a surprise, really – happened almost by accident. I was a student at MIT, studying Management Science at the Sloan School of Management. I expected to graduate with a business degree.
I needed elective courses to fulfill the degree requirements, so I took a poetry writing class. It seemed like it might be fun. And might be easy too – a break from the intensive math and economics courses.
But early on, I found myself writing poems about my mother. Old memories flooded back. It was as if I had dipped a bucket into a deep echoing well. I was flooded by powerful images and feelings.
By the time I took my second semester of poetry, I was hooked. I was finding a voice I never knew I had – a way to express things that I'd kept to myself for years.
I decided to transfer out of the business program and into MIT's Writing Program. (Most people don't realize that MIT has a writing program – it's dwarfed by the technical programs.)
I studied with some wonderful teachers at MIT. Maxine Kumin was my mentor. And I was able to cross register to Harvard and study with Seamus Heaney. (Maxine Kumin won the 1972 Pulitzer Prize in Poetry; Seamus Heaney won the 1995 Nobel Prize in Literature. –Ed.)
Another unexpected turn. After graduating, I worked as a technical writer for a local software company, but I still wrote poetry, and over the next few years began to publish in magazines and literary journals.
I heard about a local open-mic poetry club in Cambridge – the Cantab Lounge. I stopped in one night, and for the first time, I saw poems being performed – not just read – with the poets giving physical and emotional expression to their words.
I loved the performance aspect, and for a few years I became intensely involved in the open-mic and poetry slam scene. Actually, it was through that scene that I was introduced to NAMI . . . .
NAMI – the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill.
Yes. I performed a few of my "Mama poems" at an event one afternoon, and afterwards I was approached by Moe Armstrong. He's long been a NAMI member, and has done tremendous advocacy work for people with mental illness. He himself has schizophrenia.
He asked if I had more poems like those I'd just performed, and I told him that I had plenty! He invited me to present them at the local NAMI-Cambridge affiliate. That was one of the first times I performed "Voices" as more than simply a collection of poems – it was becoming something larger – a verse play.
How long have you been performing the play?
Almost ten years, but all along it's been a work in progress. Even now I make small revisions as I find ways to sharpen an image or a moment.
How often do you perform it now?
On average, a couple dozen times per year. Sometimes in theatrical settings, other times in community or professional settings – hospitals, churches, mental health conferences, libraries, night clubs, community organizations . . . you name it. I try to make "Voices" available to as many people as possible.
Has the monologue changed over the years?
It's certainly gotten longer. The first version I ever performed lasted only 25 minutes. Now it's a feature-length work – 90 minutes. But I've performed shorter versions for venues with time constraints.
Another big change – the characters are quite a bit more developed. In early versions, my mother and I were the primary characters. Now my father is a much more substantial figure. His character anchors the play in a way that reflects how he anchored the family during the more difficult times.
When I first started performing it, I was quite anxious about how audiences might react. Who'd come to a show about schizophrenia?
But the response has been tremendous. Many people come because they have some personal experience around mental illness – often a family member or friend.
One reviewer said that the one quality that backlights everything else in the play is love. I was moved to hear that. I hadn't consciously tried to develop that quality – I was just trying to tell the story artfully and truthfully.
Sometimes artists are the last to see their own work.
Do you sense any changes in how schizophrenia has been viewed by the public over time?
Absolutely. Reliable information about schizophrenia is much more available now. And while the stigma around it can still be a great obstacle, it's not as bad as it used to be. People feel freer to talk about mental illness.
The movie "A Beautiful Mind" [a dramatized version of John Nash's life] reflects some of those changes. Not only was it a box office hit, but it was the first time a Hollywood movie presented a leading character with schizophrenia.
Public attitudes aren't the only ones changing. Mental health professionals too see schizophrenia very differently. When my mother first became ill, her psychiatrist told my father that her disease was incurable, that her episodes would only get worse, and that eventually she'd need to be hospitalized full time, and for the rest of her life.
My father said that was like a death sentence.
Now health care providers are much more positive. Schizophrenia is still seen as a very difficult disease, but it's proven to be responsive to many different therapies. Lots of people with schizophrenia live meaningful, productive lives.
The peer support movement – people with schizophrenia helping each other – is the latest in this evolution of attitudes. Not long ago, these folks were kept in "warehouses" for the mentally ill, and had virtually no rights as citizens. Now they are speaking out. It's empowering for them to get together to share support and information.
Many readers at schizophrenia.com are parents (married to spouses who have schizophrenia) and children of parents who have schizophrenia. Does your play have a message for them?
Maybe the most important message is finding ways to share your story with others. Whether you're a family member or a consumer, it's important to keep the topic open, and not hide it. For too long, schizophrenia has been a dark, shameful secret – and even more debilitating because of that stigma.
Another message is about hope. For as long as my mother lived, she struggled with her illness, and was never "cured" in the sense that the illness went away. But she recovered in the sense that she was able to live a life that had value to herself and those around her. She became an important part of her community.
For starters, more group homes like the last two where my mother lived – positive, healthy, and safe. Homes like those are created by people with vision. The government should reward that kind of visionary initiative with support.
Insurance parity is also essential too. Some states are now recognizing that mental health insurance coverage needs to be on equal footing with coverage for physical problems. But we have a long way to go. Our lawmakers need to know this, and organizations like NAMI are helping to make sure they know.
Yes, NAMI is an organization I really believe in. Primarily a network of family members and people with mental illness who share information and support. Almost every community in the country now has a chapter. They've also become a powerful voice advocating for the mentally ill and their families.
Unfortunately, NAMI hadn't yet formed when my mother first became ill – it was created in the 1980s. What a difference it might have made. My father struggled virtually single-handedly to raise us kids while trying to care for our mother and learn about her illness. With NAMI you don't feel so alone.
Michael, despite the extreme challenges you've faced growing up, you've obviously accomplished a lot. What factors in your life helped?
I've had a lot of help along the way – people who helped me when I needed it most. One was a guidance counselor I knew when I first started college. She became something of a "life mentor" and was someone I grew to love and respect. She saw possibilities in me that I didn't yet see.
Also I found therapy to be helpful. It's a creative process not unlike storytelling – a way of revisiting and reframing early events, and finding different ways to think about them. Discovering a newer and healthier story to tell.
It's great to talk with other kids who have parents in a similar situation. You don't feel so alone, and you can help each other out. In my travels around the country, I've run across organizations that offer workshops for children and adolescents that provide coping skills that can make it easier for kids.
Any advice for the parents in families where one of the parents has schizophrenia? Any suggestions about how to help their children overcome the challenges faced in such a family environment?
I have a good friend with schizophrenia – the mother of two children, aged ten and twelve. She's been very candid with her kids about her illness, and the medication she needs to take to stay well. She answers their questions whenever they ask, and most importantly, she continually assures them how much she loves them.
She's also been candid with her community. It helps people to know her not as "a schizophrenic" but as a person with schizophrenia – someone coping with an illness that she never asked for, but that she needs to manage.
It's remarkable how supportive her community has become. Her speaking so openly has gone a long way in reducing misunderstandings.
What goals do you have with your monologue?
My first goal has always been to create good art, good theater, good poetry. If I've done my job, the audience leaves the theater feeling moved in some way – entertained, but with a bit of insight into the larger human experience.
But my goals for the work have evolved. "Voices" has proven to be a vehicle for education and understanding about mental illness, and a way to reduce its stigma. A lot of artists struggle with the relevance of their work in the context of the larger society, so I'm grateful that I can contribute in this way.
Have the results met your goals as an artist?
Once, after a show, I met a guy who said that his brother has schizophrenia, and that they hadn't spoken in years. But he said the play touched him in a way he hadn't expected – had given him a glimpse of how much his brother must have suffered. He planned to call his brother and reconnect.
As an artist, I couldn't ask for more than that.
Years ago, when I first began writing what would become the monologue, I felt what a lot of families affected by mental illness have felt – isolated, alone, that our situation was somehow unique. It wasn't till I began performing that I learned how many people have been touched directly or indirectly by schizophrenia.
Wherever I've performed, people have come up afterward to share a bit of their own stories with me. One out of every five families includes someone with a major mental illness, and I'm struck by how many of the stories I hear seem familiar – like variations on a theme. It's given me a strong sense of how common mental illness is.
It sounds like you've talked with a lot of people about schizophrenia.
I've gotten so used to talking about it that sometimes when I meet someone for the first time – on a plane, at a party, even on a date – I'll bring it up. It's become my work, an important part of my life. It's easy to forget that not everybody is talking about it.
Sometimes my new acquaintance may seem a bit surprised, but more often than not, it begins a conversation about mental illness in someone they've known, someone they've been close to. People can find it freeing to open up like that.
Has your family seen the play?
My father was the first to see it – here in Cambridge when the show first opened. He flew up from Washington, and sat in the front row during the entire performance. His face was impossible to read. I was nervous!
But after the show, he told me how pleased and impressed he was, and since then he's seen the show twice more – the second time bringing his friends from church. Everyone in my family has now seen it at least once.
My older sister was the last to come, and she didn't even tell me she was coming. Only later, after she saw the show, she told me she had dreaded seeing it – afraid of what she'd feel, remembering again after all those years. But when I saw her after the show, she said, "It was heartbreaking, but beautiful." My family's been very supportive.
Did your mother ever see the play?
When I first mentioned the play to her, she had absolutely no interest. I think she feared it would bring back too many painful memories. But in time she became curious, and I hoped that someday she'd see it (and that afterwards she'd come onstage and take a bow).
A couple of months before she died, I took her to her first open-mic poetry reading – to show her the kind of place where I'd started performing. She was amazed, and for weeks afterward she'd talk about a place were people could go and stand in front of a microphone and say whatever they wanted – and the FBI didn't stop them!
But she passed away a couple of months later. Cancer. I'm sorry that she never got to see the show. In so many ways, it's a celebration of her life and struggle. And now that she's gone, it's become a way to keep her memory alive.
It was one of the most deeply moving moments of my life. All four of us kids were at the hospital when she died. And even my father – they'd been estranged for years – came to see her one last time.
The moment she died, we kids were all around her bed – talking to her, holding her hands, holding her feet, her head, telling her how much we loved her.
Based on the people you've met, do you see similar artistic strengths in other children of parents with schizophrenia?
Children of parents with schizophrenia are touched by our parents' illness in ways that profoundly shape us. The effects last all our lives.
We come to terms in many ways – sometimes through the arts, sometimes through therapy, sometimes through advocacy, and sometimes, sadly, through ways that are more destructive – addictions, for example.
But we all have in an urge for repair, for recovery, for wholeness. The arts are one avenue. As someone who's found a kind of healing through the arts, I can only suggest that others who have a story to tell to find a way to tell it.
Listen to Online interview with Michael Mack
Our Lady of Sorrows
she bent down sobbing
When the bus clunked to a stop
as the bus jerked away.
I said I didn’t know.
First published in America
daisies with marmalade faces.
plastered with stickers:
a diagram of the heart
His broad ballpoint script: a fish line
i’s dotted with stars, t’s
swooped to a ring of dancing bears
At the letter’s end, Love Uncle Bill
with squads of “explanation” points
And PPS: And PPPS: as if
to feel, all that could stop his high
last lines of tiny print
Taped to the back for each of us kids,
and once “a fiver”
in a thick wool suit and kinky hair,
Not the best speller, his occasional malaprop
generous to a fault
Job after job, Bill never married,
blinds drawn in a tiny
We agree that he took his life
no call, no letter. Just his shoes
I study his letters again, and that photo
big hands folded, he squints in the sun,
And this: the camera is tilted.
First published in Portland Review
bobolink, titmouse, linnet, finch
Flutter in her lap, peck her blouse’s buttons
wagtail, waxwing, solitaire, brambling
Curl into nests, shivering fists
rose finch, siskin, tanager
Pale and ringless, nails bitten to the quick
They reach for a cigarette, whisk the air with matches
vireo, towhee, longspur
Doodling fingers, tapping thumbs flicker in feathers of smoke
grackle, chat, blue bunting
My mother’s wings rise in her silent room, a dance of ashes and light
diamond starling, vesper sparrow, alabaster seraphim
I touch them
First published in Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA)
she pesters the porch lamp all night long
she cannot weigh the odds
or regard her vain fling
late, near dawn
with a kind of envy
having spent her one penny
she is weak
as after the fever of a lifetime
find a cool and secret
(the crack beneath my window)
and slip in
First published in the Asheville Poetry Review
The original performances schedule Michael gave to us is now past. If you'd like to get Michael to perform in your area (perhaps as part of a NAMI-sponsored event) you can contact him at the email address below.
Michael Mack is available to perform his monologue "Hearing Voices (Speaking in Tongues)"
For more information - Contact him via the Michael Mack Web Site
(the above email address has been modified to stop spam from flooding his email box)
Posted by Dominique DeBold at July 3, 2006 04:37 AM
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