Sandra Allen had just begun graduate school as a student of creative nonfiction when she got a phone call from a number she didn’t recognize. “It was my uncle, a self-described hermit who lived alone in the desert,” Allen said. Her sparse memories of him came from family vacations on a Minnesota lake. He was a loner, a musician, a little off-beat; her mother, his sister, told Allen that he was “crazy.”
What her Uncle Bob wanted, Allen continued, was help telling his story. Soon after the phone call, she received his manuscript, written in all capital letters, “reeking of cigarettes,” she said. “I was fundamentally unsure what to do with it. Because he typed it on his typewriter, I sensed it was the only copy he had. So I didn’t throw it away,” she added. “But I thought about it.”
Eventually, though, Allen began reading. Her uncle described being put in psychiatric hospitals starting at 16, struggling to live a free and independent life. “When I did finally read the entirety of Bob’s story,” Allen said, “I could feel that my own world was changed; my mind was changed.”
In “A Kind of Mirraculas Paradise: A True Story About Schizophrenia,” Allen interprets and contextualizes her uncle’s autobiography (including some of his idiosyncratic spellings). It was a process she compares to a musician covering another musician’s song. “It was important to me that I try to, most of all, give Bob’s story a really respectful and full presentation,” she said, in part because “the point of view of those who have been diagnosed with schizophrenia are most routinely disregarded.”
“I think it’s important that people who are traditionally left out of these conversations be welcomed into them,” she added. “Folks like Bob have a lot to teach the rest of us about what good mental healthcare might look like.”
Allen will read at 7 p.m. Friday, Feb. 9, at Harvard Book Store.
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Kate Tuttle, president of the National Book Critics Circle, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.