Book Review: A Legacy of Madness

February 23, 2012 § 2 Comments

Jennifer Nelson reviews Tom Davis’s A Legacy of Madness: Recovering My Family from Generations of Mental Illness
Hazelden 2011

Years ago, I dated a mentally ill man. He wrote hours on end without breaks for food or sleep, roared loudly at the slightest joke, and later suffered a complete breakdown that required hospitalization. At first, I brushed off concerns about his mental state. I was going out with an eccentric artist who was so generous that I could never give him up. One day he confessed he was bipolar, but his illness was managed through medication and counseling. In my heart, I knew he wasn’t the right one to wed, but had he been, could I have lived with a man who could be manic one day and depressed the next?

Tom Davis, the author of A Legacy of Madness, lucked out in marrying a woman who helped him overcome his mental health disorder. Together, they took their son, who became sick after crying and anxious over any stress, to a psychiatrist. They aimed to break the cycle of madness that had plagued generations in his family. In fact, Tom’s great-great grandmother, Lydia Winans, and her sons, Frederick and Edward, all committed suicide by gas asphyxiation, and his mother and grandfather exhibited bizarre behavior. Davis painstakingly researched his family’s history, and in the process, he discovered more about his own mental instability.

In the early twentieth century, Tom’s grandfather, Dick, suppressed symptoms of obsessive-compulsive disorder through drinking vodka and beer; ironically, he headed personnel at the famous Greystone Park Psychiatric Hospital in Morris Plains, N.J. There, Tom’s mother, Dede, witnessed lunatics running wildly outside and gazing through bars on the windows of dark stone buildings. Her father wandered patients’ wings that reeked of urine. Certainly, growing up in such a place impacted a young girl’s perception. “At Christmas, they didn’t look out and see kids throwing snowballs at each other and decorated houses lining the streets,” Davis wrote. “They didn’t look out in July and see fireworks or kids jumping into pools and playing baseball in the street. They saw only what my mother would call ‘the nuthouse,’ one of the largest psychiatric facilities in the country, staring them down every day.”

In this ambitious book, Tom digs into his relatives’ past, jumping from Hightstown in the 1930s, where his grandfather grew up, to Point Pleasant in the 1970s, where his parents and siblings lived. He talks about the trials of living with a mother who obsessively washed her hands, constantly asked her husband if he loved her, and hit her children. His father escaped to the New Jersey shore to relieve the stress of living with his unbalanced wife. Tom recounts how as a young adult, he suffered through eating disorders, tightness in his chest, and feelings of despair. One day, he contemplates driving his car into a river. “Once again, I thought of my mother and my grandfather, how they could be self-destructive, how they didn’t seem to care what came next,” Tom wrote. “Was I self-destructing too?” He calls his wife, who orders him to visit a doctor. His doctor prescribes Lexapro, which keeps Tom mentally balanced. He severs the cycle of madness that had plagued his family, and, in the process, provides hope for others whose thoughts darken even on the brightest days.

Jennifer Nelson is currently pursuing an MFA in creative nonfiction at Vermont College of Fine Arts after spending years teaching French and writing for several newspapers and magazines. She lives in Hopewell, New Jersey, with her three teenagers.

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