University of Minnesota Alumni Association


Mental Illness, Racial Conversations, and Wildlife Conservation

It’s Minnesota Alumni’s quarterly books roundup

If your child has leukemia, an eating disorder, or even a drug problem, plenty of resources exist to help them and plenty of people are sympathetic and happy to rally ’round.

Not so when your child is suffering from a severe mental illness, writes Mindy Greiling in Fix What You Can: Schizophrenia and a Lawmaker’s Fight for Her Son (University of Minnesota Press).

Greiling (M.A. ’75), a former state legislator from the St. Paul area, discovered this to her dismay when her son, Jim, began showing signs of serious mental illness while still in college. Greiling’s book beautifully and painfully spells out the many attempts that she and her husband, Roger, made to get Jim help, as well as the numerous frustrating roadblocks they encountered, chief among them the particular difficulties of trying to assist an uncooperative adult child.

Along the way Jim—once a strong and thoughtful young man, a lover of music and the outdoors—was arrested for burglary and assault with a deadly weapon, spent time in mental hospitals and rehab facilities, sold drugs, was civilly committed, tried and failed to complete various work programs, and made several attempts at suicide. He also was victimized by various charlatans pretending to be his friends, including a quack chiropractor who persuaded him to stop his medications, a confidence man who moved into his condo, and a longtime girlfriend who drew him back into using illegal drugs and with whom he stole money from his parents.

Although Jim was ultimately diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder—a difficult combination of schizophrenia and bipolar disease—his parents never gave up on him, enrolling him in various rehab and work programs, finding him apartments, and at one point even buying him a condo.

Her son’s illness brought back painful memories for Greiling of her paternal grandmother, Grandma Teddy, whose schizophrenia led her to spend 23 years institutionalized. Schizophrenia, as Greiling discovered, often runs in families. This secondary narrative of Grandma Teddy, who—like Jim—heard voices and suffered from paranoia, is a moving one, seen as it is through the eyes of a confused girl who loved her grandmother and ached to lose her.

Toward the end of her book, Greiling writes something that feels like a gross understatement given all that has come before: “Life with a child—or parent or sibling or anyone—with serious mental illness is a life of unpredictability.” By the time she finished her book, Greiling and her husband, along with their daughter, Angela, had spent 20 years dealing with the world of mental illness—advocating, fighting, and “trying every way possible to find help for my son and others like him.”

She had some successes along the way, including joining the national board of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), starting a mental health caucus in the Minnesota Legislature, helping to increase funding for state mental health programs, and perhaps mostly vitally, serving as a compelling advocate for the interests of the mentally ill and their families.

But despite her best efforts, Greiling has been unable to consistently help her son, who two years ago landed in felony court for stealing from his parents while they were out of town. She writes, “The criminal justice system has become our de facto mental health system … instead of providing needed interventions to people with serious mental illness, we let them become so sick that many of them commit crimes.”

Hers, she writes, is an ambiguous loss, one without closure or understanding. Nevertheless, Greiling has found comfort through meeting with a support group of women whose sons have similar illnesses. And she keeps fighting for Jim and others like him, trying to make the mental health system work better for all the people whose lives depend on it.

And the rest….

As painful as mental illness and an even more timely topic is the systemic racism our nation has finally begun facing this year. Michael Sidney Fosberg’s book, Nobody Wants to Talk About It: Race, Identity, and the Difficulties in Forging Meaningful Conversations (Incognito Inc., Chicago) covers his experiences since he discovered his birth father was Black and Fosberg began performing an autobiographical one-man play throughout the country. Fosberg (B.F.A. ’79) writes that he hopes “the stories and tools I learned over the many years of trying to forge meaningful conversations about race and identity could be of great importance in this moment.”

In his own era, John Steinbeck was also an activist writer, taking a stand against social injustice through books such as The Grapes of Wrath and his political activism on behalf of the migrant farmers he wrote of in that novel. In a new, highly praised book about the Depression-era author, Mad at the World: A Life of John Steinbeck (Norton), William Souder (B.A. ’77) has written the third comprehensive biography of Steinbeck. Why another one? Because of “my perspective,” he told a Minnesota Alumni profiler in 2019, “my way of telling a story.” Given that Souder’s previous biographies of Rachel Carson and John James Audubon were named a New York Times Notable book and a Pulitzer Prize finalist respectively, his storytelling is well worth reading.

Also in that category is a compelling new novel by Lin Enger (B.A. ’83) called American Gospel (University of Minnesota), which tells the story of an old northern Minnesota man waiting in 1974 for the Rapture at his home—Last Days Ranch—which becomes ground zero for the believers, the curious, and reporters, including his skeptical New York writer son.

Northern Minnesota is also the setting for an equally gripping real-world drama, this one concerning the magical animals of Isle Royale. Wolf Island: Discovering the Secrets of a Mythic Animal (University of Minnesota Press) by Fisheries, Wildlife and Conservation adjunct professor L. David Mech and Greg Breining (B.A. ’74). Drawing on journals, field notes, and extensive interviews, the book recounts three summers and winters 60 years ago that Mech spent on the island observing wolves and moose—observations that forever ended the notion of wolves as insatiable, wicked predators.

An even more mysterious animal is the subject of an acclaimed volume by Jonathan C. Slaght (Ph.D. ’11), Owls of the Eastern Ice: A Quest to Find and Save the World’s Largest Owl (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), a finalist for the 2020 National Book Awards. Slaght, long drawn to Russia’s remote Primorye Province, elected to devote his conservation biology doctorate work to studying that region’s elusive Blackiston’s fish owl. The many difficulties and ultimate triumphs he experienced along the way, including working with Russian officials to preserve the rare owl’s habitat, make for a rollicking conservation quest wrapped in an adventure story.

Lynette Lamb (M.A. ’84) is a Minneapolis writer.

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