Madness


"The City of Light" by Sandy Suminski

1. The author writes, “It is the most real I have ever felt. Only in this intense light can I truly now live. Yet I realize the price of this—a certain isolation from the merely earthbound…” Does this justify rejection of medical treatment by some writers and artists?
2. Was Ann negligent in leaving the protagonist alone?
3. How does mental illness affect relationships of friends and family members?
4. Do you feel that the protagonist was taken advantage of by Nikolai? In your opinion, is this a prevalent problem in the lives of the mentally ill?
5. Why do you think that delusions and hallucinations related to religion are so prevalent among the mentally ill?
6. Does a physician need to “understand” in order to treat?

Keywords: Abuse, Delusions, Mental Illness


"Bellevue" by Julia Alvarez

1. Is the threat of “I’m going to Bellevue” an empty one?
2. Is the mother really ill or simply looking to control her children and perhaps express her desire for a break?
3. How do the threats of abandonment affect the lives of children?
4. Does our society provide enough support for single parents with little money?
5. How is life in the “old country” contrasted with life in New York, in the “new world"? How does the change affect the mother? How does it affect the daughters?
6. What is the interplay between images of containment and freedom? Who is free and who isn’t in this poem? How does the poem redefine the notion of freedom? Does the mother’s threat of going to Bellevue express an escape? From what does she want to escape? What traps her? Where does the irony lie in the idea that going to Bellevue would signify an escape for the mother?
7. What is the relation between the “cloistered carmelites” and Bellevue?
8. What is the relationship between the mother and her daughters? How do tensions of rebellion and obedience play into the relationship and how are they expressed?

Keywords: Abandonment, Change, Class, Faith, Freedom, Imprisonment, Love, Mental Illness, Parenting, Strength, Stress, Time


"Shaking the Dead Geranium" by Harriet Rzetelny

1. What are some of the “survival” mechanisms noted in this story that families of mentally ill employ?
2. Describe the role of guilt in this story (mother’s and daughter’s) and how the feeling of guilt plays out in the families of the mentally ill.
3. What does the author mean when she writes, “His mind is like an old suit of once-excellent quality, that has been patched and re-patched with odd pieces of material that don’t quite go together, kind of like a crazy quilt.”?
4. What does the protagonist feel when she states that “My love is inadequate to protect him.”? Do you believe that this is a common theme for family and friends of the mentally ill? What about for family and friends of people with other illnesses?
5. Concealment seems to be a theme in this piece. Who conceals what and how does that affect their interactions with others? When what a person conceals is exposed, how does she (and how do others) react and why? How does this relate to silence in the story? Think of the narrator’s “vow of silence” and the silence of other characters, like Marushka.
6. How does isolation operate in this story? Who is isolated and how?
7. What is the narrator’s relationship to her brother? What is the basis of their bond, their love? (One of the things to consider might be her fascination of him.)
8. The narrator is able to find humor in the tragedy of her brother’s illness. Does this help her cope?
9. What kind of perspective does a relationship with someone who’s mentally ill provide for the narrator? How does it affect her view on delusion and reality, the normal and the abnormal? Do the divisions between these different poles become blurred somehow?
10. What is the relationship between Ben and Marushka?
11. What was the relationship between the narrator and her brother when they were children? How does this relationship change with the onset of Ben’s illness?
12. What is the nature of Ben’s mental illness? What affect does it have on his sense of self?
13. One of Molly’s primary concerns/motives is a desire to protect her brother. How does this inform her decisions in the story, her interactions with her brother, her feelings regarding committing him to the private hospital?
14. In the final moments of the piece, Molly has a kind of revelation. What does she realize? How does she view her life? How does she view the choices she’s made? Is there any indication of changes she might make in her life after this episode?

Keywords: Anger, Delusion, Family, Fear, Guilt, Humor, Isolation, Loss, Medication, Mental Illness, Responsibility, Silence, Trust, Violence


"Thanksgiving: Visiting My Brother on the Ward" by Peter Schmitt

1. Discuss the theme of betrayal the patients with psychiatric illness often feel as noted in this poem and in the story “Shaking the Dead Geranium”? How does this play out on the family?
2. Describe the “relationship” that patients with mental illness have with their medications. Are the medications perceived as friend or foe and why?
3. What is meant in the poem by “Have you gotten what you came for?”?
4. This poem is replete with images of restraint and imprisonment. Locate them and consider how they reflect upon the theme of madness. Who is contained/imprisoned and by what, in the poem?
5. How does madness affect the family dynamics? How does it affect and shape the relationship between the brothers?
6. The violence of the brother’s madness remains on the periphery of the poem and is only alluded to obliquely through what did not happen. What effect does it create? On what, instead, does the focus of the poem shift?
7. How are feelings of guilt and betrayal represented in the poem?
8. How is medication represented? What are the complications of taking medication? Why does the brother refuse to take medication?
9. Consider the last image of the poem, that of the bread crumbs. Does this offer hope of healing and reconnection between the brother and the family? Or is such a possibility relegated to the realm of a fairy tale fantasy?

Keywords: Betrayal, Family, Forgiveness, Guilt, Helplessness, Isolation, Loss, Love, Medication, Mental Illness, Responsibility, Trust, Violence


"Overblown" by Hal Sirowitz

1. Who is speaking in this poem and to whom? What kind of tone is used?
2. What message does the therapist impart to the patient?
3. What message does the representation of the therapist’s voice impart to the reader of the poem? Is there a critique involved? What is being criticized and how?
4. Is there an implicit message directed at the therapist?
5. How does the patient feel about the therapist? How does the therapist make the patient feel?
6. What effect does the monological nature of the therapist’s speech produce?
7. In reference to the title, what is meant by “Overblown”? What is overblown and by whom?

Keywords: Anger, Anxiety, Doctor/Patient Relationships, Frustration, Helplessness, Isolation