Six Psychology Lessons In This Memoir (continued)

by Jerry Waxler

Author of Memoir Revolution: Write Your Story, Change the World and How to Become a Heroic Writer

After reading the memoir Surrounded by Madness by Rachel Pruchno, I pondered the lessons about life and about memoir writing. In this continuation of the series, I explore more of the lessons-about-life embedded in the book.

This is the third article in a series about Surrounded by Madness. For the first article, click here.

Psychology Lesson #3: Adolescent mental health care

When Rachel Pruchno’s daughter failed to follow the path of normal childhood development, the natural option was to look for help. Unfortunately, finding psychological help for her adolescent daughter required a complex and frustrating search.

She picked her way through complex insurance regulations and inadequate coverage, pleading and politicking with therapists who were not accepting new patients, trying to absorb each new diagnosis, leading to a new round of meds. When the problems continued, she had to start over, seeking the next round of help. Trying to help her daughter forced Rachel Pruchno into training, not based on an academic program but on real-world experience. The memoir passes this education along to readers, packed into a suspenseful high-pressure struggle for sanity.

Psychology Lesson #4: Inadequate response to broken minds. Unlimited response to broken laws.

When a child breaks the law, society steps in with full authority to remove all freedoms and place them in jail, usually without treatment. However, Pruchno’s daughter did not break laws, and so she was able to easily evade her parents’ desperate concerns, acting out at the very edge of sanity, and manipulating her way out of any attempts to rein her in.

The memoir, Surrounded by Madness, is in essence a cry for help, not just for one troubled girl but for the poor health of the mental health care system itself. Through Rachel Pruchno’s eyes, we experience the lack of supportive laws, lack of funding and research, and generally ineffective psychological response to children whose behavior reaches, but does not yet cross, the boundaries of the law.

The title could be construed as a double-entendre. Not only was Pruchno surrounded by the madness of trying to bring her daughter in line with social norms. She was also surrounded by the madness of a mental health care system that turns a blind eye toward insanity. Pruchno’s heart-wrenching story is both a good reading experience and a powerful cry for help from someone who has been under-served by the only institutional systems available in such situations. By sharing her story, Pruchno lets us feel the helplessness and insanity for ourselves.

For another tragic example of the maddening lack of social support for mental illness, see Leave the Hall Light On, in which Madeline Sharples’ son was able to sign himself out from treatment and commit suicide. Another example of a parent without institutional support is Live Through This by Debra Gwartney, in which two teenage girls cut school and eventually ran away leaving this single mom to find her own solutions.

Psychology Lesson #5: Health of the family versus the identified patient

The Pruchnos poured an extraordinary amount of energy into raising their disruptive daughter. Meanwhile their well-behaved son remained in the background, growing up in the midst of the drama caused by his sister’s erratic behavior.

The memoir, in addition to being about the daughter’s mental health, also demonstrates her impact on the health of the son and of the whole family unit. By showing the level of attention required to cope with the troubled child, Surrounded by Madness highlights the stress one sibling places on family dynamics.

The memoir doesn’t teach technical psychology lessons about these complex issues. Rather it leads the reader through the detailed personal experience of living through the situation. Books like Surrounded by Madness should be on the shelf of anyone who wants to learn how the psychological strength of the parents is crucial for the stability of the family.

Further Reading
For another memoir that shows the family’s response to a troubled child, see Freeways to Flipflops by Sonia Marsh. Read about it here.

Psychology Lesson #6: Nature versus Nurture: Unless Otherwise Demonstrated, It’s Probably Mom’s Fault

The contract of becoming a mother seems straightforward enough. Completely transform your life to become a caregiver, pour heart and soul into raising the child, and adapt every minute of at least the first eighteen years, no matter what the cost. As if this responsibility is not overwhelming enough, it is supercharged with a powerful threat of social stigma when the child does not meet society’s expectation.

In the 1950s, psychologists blamed mothers for causing schizophrenia. This cause for the horrifically disruptive mental disorder was discredited when inheritance patterns and medications demonstrated the disease’s biological roots. However, Personality Disorders resist such a straightforward biological model or treatment. As a result of this ambiguity, when a child persistently follows anti-social, self-destructive patterns, there is a tendency to wonder how parenting contributed to the problem.

To learn about the effects due to nature, scientists use magnetic resonance brain images and massive genetic surveys. To learn more about nurture, we need to observe the way these conditions unfold in real life.

Rachel Pruchno’s memoir is a fascinating case study that allows us to see into the dynamics of a family with a child who comes of age with this troubling mental condition. We watch the mother’s stunning persistence and intensity to guide the child, and the daughter’s equally persistent and intense determination to thwart those directives. The book offers no easy answers but raises these important questions in a detailed, careful exploration.

For this reason, this book is an important one to study when attempting to sort out the influence of nature and nurture on a child’s development.

Further reference
In his book My Age of Anxiety, author Scott Stossel traces the complex relationship between genetic and environmental factors in pervasive anxiety. Stossel grew up with horrible, debilitating anxiety starting from an early age, so this quasi-memoir, quasi-textbook sheds light on the complex interaction between nature and nurture in severe pervasive anxiety.

Surrounded by Madness by Rachel Pruchno
Rachel Pruchno’s Website

For another memoir of Bipolar Disorder, see Tara Meissner’s Stress Fracture: A Memoir of Psychosis.

For brief descriptions and links to all the posts on Memory Writers Network, click here.

To order my book Memoir Revolution about the powerful trend to create, connect, and learn, see the Amazon page for eBook or Paperback.

To order my step-by-step how-to guide to write your memoir, click here.

Memoirs Popularize Important Psychology Lessons

by Jerry Waxler

Author of Memoir Revolution: Write Your Story, Change the World.

(This is the second in a series of posts about Rachel Pruchno’s memoir Surrounded by Madness. Click here to read the first post.)

When Rachel Pruchno adopted a daughter, she looked forward to the joys and responsibilities of motherhood. At first her daughter seemed healthy, active and intelligent. However, through the years, her daughter tended toward risky behavior, manipulation and deceit. Mom drew on her training as a PhD psychologist first, to implement the best possible care, and second, to carefully chronicle the events.

The memoir Surrounded by Madness is the result of almost two decades of this combined effort to guide her daughter and to document the process. The resulting book offers many insights into the psychology of raising this child. However, the lessons are not offered as theories or statistics. Rather, they are contained within a Story, that narrative structure that human beings have used to learn about each other since the beginning of time. Here are six psychology insights I’ve teased out of Rachel Pruchno’s memoir.

Developmental Psychology: A well organized mind is a prerequisite for adulthood

Many bestselling memoirs show young people acquiring the skills they will need in order to become effective adults. Jeanette Walls in Glass Castle and Frank McCourt in Angela’s Ashes had to learn adult skills despite terrible obstacles of alcoholic and overwhelmed parents.

These bestselling memoirs gripped popular imagination because they demonstrated the heroic, relentless drive of these young people to grow up, despite their horrific environments. Most such Coming of Age memoirs end when the child reaches a plateau of competency from which he or she can reliably begin the next leg of the journey.

Rachel Pruchno’s memoir approaches the developmental project of childhood from the opposite point of view. Despite the parent doing everything within her power to guide her daughter to adulthood, the daughter keeps missing the lessons. Surrounded by Madness is the heart-wrenching account of trying to raise a child for whom the fundamental skills of adulthood seem constantly out of reach. Instead of learning to manage her choices and measure the outcome of her actions, she develops a fantasy-based system that idolizes her own impulses, without regard for consequences.

This Coming of Age story raises the stakes of the mother-child relationship and chronicles an outrageous battle of wills that borders on insanity.

Personal account of how it feels to be human

For a hundred years, psychologists have researched mental aberrations and reported their findings to each other in textbooks and peer-reviewed journals. Such information would be valuable in society, to help us understand our own minds, our loved ones, neighbors and people in the news. Sadly, most attempts to share such findings with the public are dismissed as unreliable, merely a popularization that ignores the complexity of the underlying situation.

Occasionally,  literature provides glimpses into the workings of the mind. Novelists and playwrights, those great observers of the human condition, often take us inside the minds of their characters. But fictional psychology cannot reliably help us learn about ourselves or our neighbors. The Memoir Revolution offers another approach, letting us into the minds of real people.

After having had an experience of mental illness, or some other complex, unique experience, a memoir author must attend writing workshops, collaborates in critique groups, hire editors, swap manuscripts with beta readers, and revise, revise, revise. Like grapes that require fermentation to release their intoxicating properties, the events of life require the evolution of the writing process in order to acquire a compelling form.

By the time this personal experience reaches the reader, it has been transformed into a structure as old as civilization. By transforming life into stories, memoirs enable readers to absorb and integrate the complexity and power of situations normally outside their own experience.

First-person accounts allow professionals, as well as the public, to enter private worlds. In 1990, William Styron led readers into the mind of a severely depressed man with psychotic features in his aptly-titled memoir Darkness Visible. In 1995, Kay Redfield Jamison’s memoir An Unquiet Mind flipped the psychological view of Bipolar. For the first time, professionals as well as the reading public, viewed the disorder from inside. In 1996, Temple Grandin offered a first-person account of autism in Thinking in Pictures. And in 2008, John Elder Robison’s Look Me in the Eye did the same thing with Asperger’s. However, the condition known as Borderline Personality Disorder resists a reliable first-person account.

Just as AIDS undermines the immune system, making it impossible for the body to fight off the disease, Borderline Personality Disorder attacks an individual’s will to improve.  Often such patients sabotage efforts to help them, spoiling their self-reports with misinformation, manipulation and deceit.

In the absence of an authentic first-person account, Rachel Pruchno’s book offers a close second. Through the eyes of a mother trained in psychological observation, the story is a blow by blow account of her daughter’s journey from early childhood to young adulthood. This book offers insight into the way Borderline Personality Disorder unfolds and should go on your shelf with other books that report the experience of mental illness.

In the next post, I will offer more psychological insights contained within Rachel Pruchno’s memoir.

Surrounded by Madness by Rachel Pruchno
Rachel Pruchno’s Website

For another memoir of Bipolar Disorder, see Tara Meissner’s Stress Fracture: A Memoir of Psychosis.

For brief descriptions and links to all the posts on Memory Writers Network, click here.

To order my book Memoir Revolution about the powerful trend to create, connect, and learn, see the Amazon page for eBook or Paperback.

To order my step-by-step how-to guide to write your memoir, click here.