Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Book Review: Stalking Irish Madness

[Apologies for posting these reviews from a computer that can't open Amazon. I'll come back and insert the links when I can.]

A Fair Trade Book

Title: Stalking Irish Madness

Author: Patrick Tracey

Author's website: stalkingirishmadness.com

Publisher: Bantam

Date: 2008

ISBN: 978-0-553-80525-3

Length: 257 pages of narrative, 6 pages of references, 9 pages of index

Quote: “The notion that madness had favored the Irish had been kicking around since the 1850s... between 1817 and 1961, no other nation had produced, in proportion to its population, so many... conditions we now call manic depression and schizophrenia.”

According to his research, Patrick Tracey reports, full-blown schizophrenia is shaped by a combination of up to sixteen genes. Even in his family, in which that combination runs, few people really get that disease—which Tracey describes in vivid terms that leave no room for confusion with ordinary mood swings, or even with “manic depression” (now more often called “bipolar disorder”), which is relatively common and treatable.

Neither schizophrenia nor bipolar mental illness is particularly Irish, although genetic gluten intolerance is, and gluten intolerance has been documented both to aggravate and to accelerate the progress of mental illness. Most celiacs are not schizophrenic, but in one group of schizophrenics studied, one-third were celiacs. Being an Irish-American celiac, I was eager to read this book, after seeing it reviewed on Associated Content; I was disappointed that Tracey does not discuss whether his schizophrenic relatives have gluten intolerance or any other food sensitivities.

“Genetically speaking,” Tracey says, “the Irish are no more at risk than any other people. But in their darkest hour” (during the nineteenth century potato famine) “their rates of insanity were pushed to extremes.” Starvation obviously produced extreme physical stress, accentuating any mental illness to which people were genetically prone, and producing emotional “breakdowns” in people without genetic predispositions to mental illness.

What was uniquely Irish about the schizophrenia that runs in families like Tracey's is the colorful folklore that only the Irish mind could spin around it. These people attributed the effects of gluten intolerance to “hungry ghosts” that attached themselves to patients and devoured the nutrition in the food the patients ate. Likewise, schizophrenia was attributed to the Faeries, who took fancies to mortals and, when they carried off those mortals to be their consorts or slaves, left things that looked like humans but weren't to take their place; schizophrenic, autistic, or even deaf-mute people were suspected of being these not-quite-human “changelings.” Or, according to an alternative story, the families that were prone to schizophrenia were descendants of people who had offended a particularly powerful wizard.

You might think people would have been more interested in curing a disease than in inventing explanations for it, and although no real cure for schizophrenia has ever been found, the taletellers did try. There were said to be wells whose water might relieve mental illness, if a person was lucky. St. Dymphna was said to intercede on behalf of the afflicted, although she obviously lacked the power to cure full-blown schizophrenia, for which patients are now treated (though not really cured) at hospitals dedicated to the more powerful Sts. Brigid and Patrick (and at hospitals not officially dedicated to any saint). There were also said to be places where people might “see the Faeries”; seeing them was usually considered likely to cause schizophrenia (and may have been a symptom of it) but some people hoped the Faeries could be persuaded to reverse the exchange of human and “changeling.”

Tracey begins his narrative with a pilgrimage to one of the caves (or graves—in Old Irish the same word meant both, probably because the same places were both) associated with schizophrenia, then backtracks to describe the symptoms of his relatives' peculiar form of insanity. Schizophrenia is not to be confused with the ordinary symptoms of mood disorders or brain damage. If it could be confused with anything, it might be confused with a drug reaction.

There are, Tracey mentions near the beginning and again near the end of the book, people who've been diagnosed as schizophrenic who “manage their illness.” It's not perfectly clear whether these people really have the same disease that caused Tracey's grandmother to demand that a dentist extract all of her teeth at once, or caused one of his sisters to attack a family friend with a knife. Hallucinations can be induced by less serious damage, often to specific nerves, than schizophrenia does. It is possible that some people who seem to be “managing” schizophrenia are actually living with milder neurological dysfunctions.

Tracey's interest in Ireland is not too sentimental to include a keen interest in the country's economy—starvation was, after all, the big trigger for “Irish madness.” “It's not my ancestors' Ireland,” he reports, “with construction cranes everywhere...Tara Hill...is having a four-lane toll road built through its valley...The Irish...are parking their money abroad, positioning themselves even as...absentee landlords...[P]roperty speculation has been called the new pornography.” There are “more single than married adults, many more new cars bringing ever more road deaths, and people...killing themselves in record numbers.” “The Irish seem so alert—so switched on--” and yet, “Punching the radio buttons, we land on...an ad for a group that calls itself Schizophrenia Ireland...offering a hotline number...I flick the station and the Gnarls Barkley summer chart topper, “Crazy,” is on the air. For a moment, I wonder if I'm going mad.”

But economic prosperity can do only so much. Ireland was a small inbred island nation for a long time, and nurtured several less than functional genes along with its rich culture. Tracey meets a stuttering hunchback, “the incredible human tortoise,” who reminds him of the nineteenth-century stereotype of “the Irish lunatic,” although the old man seems sane. This old man, and other people in Ireland, seem to Tracey to fit “the contradictory image of the Irish as friendly and hostile, cheery and angry, happy and melancholic.”

“Melancholic” originally described an intensely emotional personality, not a depressive one, as our e-friend TIM LAHAYE has done so much to remind American Protestants; if you are, or know, a creative “melancholic” Highly Sensory-Perceptive person, “friendly and hostile, cheery and angry, happy and melancholic” makes sense. The HSP trait is not especially Irish but Irish lore and literature celebrate it more than the lore and literature of some other cultures. Tracey, apparently not HSP or related to HSPs, disappoints me further by not discussing the current status of the HSP trait in Ireland, although in a way this may be good for HSPs, highlighting the absence of any link between HSP and schizophrenia. (Some HSPs are bipolar, though, and others are mislabelled as bipolar.)

Tracey contrasts the booming (or bubbling) economy of modern Ireland with the economic misery his ancestors left. “Crops rotted, rents fell behind...a million Irish died of starvation, typhus, cholera and dysentery...The Irish didn't starve for lack of potatoes, they starved for lack of food generally, and there was plenty of that taken out by British guards and sold off to the rest of Europe.”

He's looking for relatives and for memories of his ancestors, but since his Irish ancestors died before anyone now alive was born, he doesn't find much. “You're not the first Yank to come looking for relations,” one person living near the site an ancestor left tells him. “You'll have to tell me their first name, and then you'll have to tell me what business you're going there on.” Professional storytellers used to earn their living on the streets, so Tracey imagines one “leaning toward the hearth and telling me a tale of our lunatic ancestors,” but “It didn't turn out that way, exactly.” What's available by now are old lists of names, and even when he knows an ancestor's given name he can't be sure which of two or three people listed by that name in an old record book might have been his ancestor.

He researches what might have become of ancestors who were schizophrenic. Although the disease, which always develops early in life and often pops out without warning, appears to be uncomfortable enough for patients, “treatment” for schizophrenia has generally appeared to be even more uncomfortable. Prior to the eighteenth century, schizophrenics might be put in jail, “confined for weeks without benefit of exercise” until “some lost the use of their atrophied limbs.” Before that, “sometimes the family lunatic was kept in a four-or-five-foot hole dug underneath the floorboards, or, worse, in the pit in the outhouse. The pit was kept shallow so he could not stand erect, making him easier to control.” While Michel Foucault had suggested that the incidence of “confinement” of Irish paupers to asylums might have been inflated to suppress protests, Tracey finds evidence that the asylums were comparatively comfortable places, where patients were at least provided with beds and oatmeal, and an asylum inspector reminded his subordinates not to waste beds or food on “pauper cases of harmless idiocy” but to reserve them for the violently insane.

He visits the Glen a Galt, where water from a local stream was said to cure insanity, and learns that there just might have been something in the story: “Some persons...got it analyzed, and they said there was a very high content of lithium in the soil.” Lithium is commonly used to relieve bipolar mood swings today. Tracey feels somewhat relieved by this discovery (“I feel my drum beats in time with the Irish now”), even though his schizophrenic relatives are beyond hope of cure by lithium.

He also contacts a “Hearing Voices Network,” where he's told that “as many as 10 percent of the population has at some time perceived sensory input when no stimulus was present.” (A few years ago, a discussion on Live Journal showed that this might be partly due to confusion about the difference between thinking-in-words, as opposed to thinking-in-pictures, and hallucinating “sensory input” that seems to come from outside the individual's mind.) For most people, of course, “hearing voices” is still an occasional experience “and those voices tend to be less disturbing.” True schizophrenic hallucinations are “cacophonous, discordant,” and hard to filter out of consciousness...raising the question, once again, whether those who stop taking drugs and “accommodate” or “accept” the voices (and other hallucinations) are those who really have different, more mild disorders. However, one patient “devotes time each day to sitting relaxed and listening to his voices,” apparently preventing sensory overload that causes the voices to “play tricks, knocking down perceptual expectations, plunging him into the dimension-swirling zone.” This wholistic treatment seems unlikely to work for Tracey's schizophrenic relatives, but it offers hope for less severely afflicted people.

Before leaving Ireland, Tracey finally finds a distant cousin who admits that one of her nine siblings was also schizophrenic. About all he's able to tell us about his schizophrenic distant relatives is that finding them puts a sense of closure on his journey and his book. He does not go into detail about the complex of genes suspected to be involved in schizophrenia; perhaps, at this stage of DNA research, it's better that way. He leaves Ireland with what seems to be more of a sense of indignation about the abuses the entire country has suffered, in the past, than any information about the prevention or cure of “real,” disabling schizophrenia.

Although he's chosen a topic that's inherently not fun to read or think about, Tracey is a skilled writer, and Stalking Irish Madness is more pleasant to read than you might have expected. It's recommended to anyone with an interest in psychiatric conditions or in Ireland. It's not especially satisfactory to people with a more general interest in DNA studies or in the various other genetic quirks that are associated with Irish ancestry; Tracey's not reporting on those topics in this book.

I wouldn't expect Stalking Irish Madness to interest anyone below the age of fifteen, but neither would I expect it to do much harm if the kiddies did see it. Schizophrenia does tend to be identified by melodramatic episodes; Tracey presents this information in about as informative, non-sensational a way as it can be presented. Foul language is occasionally quoted. One of the traditional diagnostic criteria for schizophrenia is that true schizophrenics tend to become asexual (this was why Freud thought that at least acknowledging heterosexual instincts, even if a person sublimated them, was crucial to mental health) and, fittingly, there's almost no overt sex in this book—the love interest here is family love. I would share this book with a twelve-year-old if the twelve-year-old was genetically at risk of developing schizophrenia.

Otherwise, this is pretty much a special-interest book, likely to interest and not offend the minority who are interested in it...and now you know what's in the book and whether you're in that minority or not.

Fair Trade Books are (as regular readers know) secondhand books offered for sale online at prices that allow us to send 10% of the total price to the author, if living. If you send salolianigodagewi @ yahoo.com $5 for one copy of Stalking Irish Madness  + $5 for shipping one package, we'll send Tracey or the charity of his choice $1. If you want four copies of this book, send us $25, and we'll send Tracey or his charity $4. Of course, it's also possible to order different titles and, as long as all the books fit into one package, you pay only $5 for shipping but the authors of each Fair Trade Book offered for $5 receive $1 per copy. You might find a lower price at another web site, but, so far as we know, this is the only web site that supports writers by sending them payments when we resell secondhand books.