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The Center Cannot Hold: My Journey Through Madness [Secure]
eBook by Elyn R. Saks

eBook Category: People
eBook Description: Elyn R. Saks is an esteemed professor, lawyer, and psychiatrist and is the Orrin B. Evans Professor of Law, Psychology, Psychiatry and the Behavioral Sciences at the University of Southern California Law School, yet she has suffered from schizophrenia for most of her life, and still has ongoing major episodes of the illness. The Center Cannot Hold is the eloquent, moving story of Elyn's life, from the first time that she heard voices speaking to her as a young teenager, to attempted suicides in college, through learning to live on her own as an adult in an often terrifying world. Saks discusses frankly the paranoia, the inability to tell imaginary fears from real ones, the voices in her head telling her to kill herself (and to harm others); as well the incredibly difficult obstacles she overcame to become a highly respected professional. This beautifully written memoir is destined to become a classic in its genre.

eBook Publisher: Hyperion e-books/Hyperion e-books, Published: 2007
Fictionwise Release Date: October 2007




chapter one

WHEN I WAS a little girl, I woke up almost every morning to a sunny day, a wide clear sky, and the blue green waves of the Atlantic Ocean nearby. This was Miami in the fifties and the early sixties—before Disney World, before the restored Deco fabulousness of South Beach, back when the Cuban "invasion" was still a few hundred frightened people in makeshift boats, not a seismic cultural shift. Mostly, Miami was where chilled New Yorkers fled in the winter, where my East Coast parents had come (separately) after World War II, and where they met on my mother's first day of college at the University of Florida in Gainesville.

Every family has its myths, the talisman stories that weave us one to the other, husband to wife, parents to child, siblings to one another. Ethnicities, favorite foods, the scrapbooks or the wooden trunk in the attic, or that time that Grandmother said that thing, or when Uncle Fred went off to war and came back with…For us, my brothers and me, the first story we were told was that my parents fell in love at first sight.

My dad was tall and smart and worked to keep a trim physique. My mother was tall, too, and also smart and pretty, with dark curly hair and an outgoing personality. Soon after they met, my father went off to law school, where he excelled. Their subsequent marriage produced three children: me, my brother Warren a year-and-a-half later, then Kevin three-and-a-half years after that.

We lived in suburban North Miami, in a low-slung house with a fence around it and a yard with a kumquat tree, a mango tree, and red hibiscus. And a whole series of dogs. The first one kept burying our shoes; the second one harassed the neighbors. Finally, with the third, a fat little dachshund named Rudy, we had a keeper; he was still with my parents when I went off to college.

When my brothers and I were growing up, my parents had a weekend policy: Saturday belonged to them (for time spent together, or a night out with their friends, dancing and dining at a local nightclub); Sundays belonged to the kids. We'd often start that day all piled up in their big bed together, snuggling and tickling and laughing. Later in the day, perhaps we'd go to Greynolds Park or the Everglades, or the Miami Zoo, or roller skating. We went to the beach a lot, too; my dad loved sports and taught us all how to play the activity du jour. When I was twelve, we moved to a bigger house, this one with a swimming pool, and we all played together there, too. Sometimes we'd take the power boat out and water-ski, then have lunch on a small island not far from shore.

We mostly watched television in a bunch as well—The Flintstones, The Jetsons, Leave It to Beaver, Rawhide, all the other cowboy shows. Ed Sullivan and Disney on Sunday nights. When the Perry Mason reruns began, I saw them every day after school, amazed that Perry not only defended people but also managed to solve all the crimes. We watched Saturday Night Live together, gathered in the living room, eating Oreos and potato chips until my parents blew the health whistle and switched us to fruit and yogurt and salads.

There was always a lot of music around the house. My dad in particular was a jazz fan, explaining to us that when he was young, claiming a fondness for jazz had been considered fairly rebellious. My record collection overlapped with Warren's—The Beatles, Crosby, Stills & Nash, Janis Joplin. We drew the line at the Monkees (I liked them, he absolutely didn't), and he teased me mercilessly about the poster of Peter Noone from Herman's Hermits up on my bedroom wall.

And there were movies, which my parents attempted to supervise by appropriateness: Mary Poppins and The Sound of Music were OK for me, but one James Bond movie (I don't remember which one now, except it was Sean Connery) caused a battle royal with my dad: I wasn't yet seventeen, and Bond, with his martinis and his bikini-clad girlfriends, was out of bounds.

For a while in high school, I worked at a candy counter at a local movie house—"Would you also like a Coke with that?"—which meant I saw every movie I wanted to see, and many of them more than once; I think I saw Billy Jack more than a couple dozen times. It didn't take long, though, to decide that I didn't like movies that were scary or tension-filled—horror movies were out, and Clint Eastwood's Play Misty for Me, with its crazy woman stalker, freaked me out for weeks. When the theater manager was robbed after closing one night, my parents made me quit the job.

I confess to an energetic sibling rivalry with Warren. As the oldest, I did my best to stay ahead of him, working to excel at things a younger brother couldn't yet do. I learned to ride my bike first. Once he was riding one, too, I simply rode mine faster and farther. I water-skied first, and then more furiously than he did. I got good grades and made sure he knew it; he worked just as hard and made the grades, too. Dad was not a praiser (he thought it would invite the evil eye), so he never complimented anyone. But Mom did, and Warren and I competed for her attention.

As for Kevin, there were enough years between us that for a long time I thought of him as my child. One of my earliest, clearest memories is when he began to crawl, and how thrilled I was about that, to see him learn to make his way from one place to the other. Not only was he younger than Warren and I, he was intrinsically more sociable, too—easier to get along with and more interested in just hanging around with us rather than competing with us.

As somewhat observant Jews, we went to Temple and observed the High Holy Days. We kids were sent to Hebrew school, and we also made our Bat and Bar Mitzvahs. Although it was never spoken in so many words, I was somehow given to understand that in many places and circumstances, Jewish people were not very popular, and one needed to be both discreet and respectable in order to make one's way in life. We didn't keep kosher (although my father's parents did); another part of the mom-and-dad myth was that in order to impress her future in-laws with how observant she was, my mother—whose family had never kept kosher and didn't really know the rules—had misguidedly ordered lobster on the evening my father introduced his parents to her.

On the face of it, then, our family life was congenial—a Norman Rockwell magazine cover or a gentle fifties sitcom. Indeed, my mother was what today would be called a stay-at-home mom. She was there when we came home from school and always made sure we had a snack—to this day, cold cereal is my comfort food of choice. Our family ate its meals together, and although my mother didn't cook much (a housekeeper did, and in time, my father took it up, and excelled at it), there was always cake in the pantry (albeit store-bought), fresh fruit in the fridge, and clean laundry in our closets.

Under that pleasant surface, however, things were more complex, as family matters inevitably are. Like all parents, mine had their strengths and their weaknesses. They were profoundly close to each other; in fact, they've always enjoyed being with each other more than they like being with anyone else, including, sometimes, their children. In the style of many 1950s couples, they seemed not to exist in any way independent of each other. My mother was always very physically affectionate with my dad in public; he was less so with her, but never dismissive or rude. It was just always clear that he was the boss. For my mother, it was always "Anything you want, dear," just as it had been for her mother. If she'd had any particular professional ambition when she went off to college, I've never known what it was, although she was a central part of a successful antiques business she and my father started together. Still, nothing's changed much in their dynamic in the intervening years. Recently, my mother announced that she'd given up her own political opinions in order to share my father's.

For his part, in spite of a sense of humor that often verged on the bawdy, my father could be quite absolute in his opinions and reactions. There was also a touch of suspiciousness in his interactions with others, particularly when the subject at hand was money. In this, he was just as his own father had been.

My parents were both outspoken in their disgust for religious or racial bigotry. For example, we could swear all we wanted, but the use of racial or ethnic slurs was utterly and always forbidden. As provincial as Miami seemed back in those days (my father often said that it had all the disadvantages of a big city and none of the advantages), the tension between the city's African-Americans and Cuban immigrants, and the riots in 1970 (during which our African-American housekeeper was harassed by the police), taught us that even a familiar landscape could turn violent and unpredictable in the fog of prejudice.

Whatever their faults (or ours), there was no shortage of "I love you's" from my parents when I was a child, nor is there one now; to this day, they're openly affectionate with all of us, and even my friends are greeted with a hug and a kiss. My parents were never cruel or punitive, and never physical in the ways they disciplined us; they simply made it known from our earliest days that they had high expectations for our behavior, and when we missed the bar, they brought us up short.

Copyright © 2007 Elyn R. Saks.


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