By Taylor Poor, NAMI Education Program Coordinator
In Reis’s Pieces, Karen Winters Schwartz brings the devastation of schizophrenia—a journey difficult to comprehend even for those who have experienced it themselves—into the familiar setting of a lighthearted romance.
Reis Welling seems to have it all: early tenure at Cornell, a loving girlfriend and a research project that involves hiking some of the world’s most beautiful mountains. When his father dies of a heart attack, Reis starts to lose touch with reality, believing his department heads are spying on him and that even his girlfriend Ellen is involved with the conspiracy. His friends beg him to seek help, but he has to hit rock bottom—losing Ellen, his professorship and contact with his concerned family—before he finds the right treatment and the right doctor and starts gathering the pieces of his life together at last. When an attractive young woman interrupts his vastly different but relatively stable new life, Reis may even have another chance at love—that is, if he can find the courage to tell Kelly the truth about his stigmatizing illness.
Schwartz’s characters voices, as they describe Reis’s battle with mental illness, will echo with NAMI members and supporters who have said these lines themselves. Reis’s mother has the well-rehearsed response she always gives to well-meaning friends who ask whether schizophrenia is “some kind of multiple personality:” it’s a brain disease, a thought disorder, usually involving hallucinations and often much more. Reis’s psychiatrist, Dr. Benson, is the kind, intelligent, respectful clinician we all wish our family members could meet, telling Reis, “You’re right. I don’t know what it’s like, and I can’t tell you everything will be fine.” But, “You must first accept your illness for what it is: An illness. A brain disease.”
Schwartz’s prose is most powerful and authentic when describing the symptoms associated with Reis’s collapse into psychosis, and the heartbreaking emotional reactions of Reis’s family, friends and colleagues. Reis’s gradually jumbling speech patterns and increasing grandiosity ring true. Sure, in bringing the messy, complex landscape of mental illness into the context of a frothy novel, Schwartz has made some simplifications. Her descriptions are cliché—the first time Reis meets Ellen, she is depicted as having a “pleasing exterior” at odds with her aggressive athleticism. At the end of the book, I’m left wondering how the story would have read for a protagonist living with mental illness without Reis’s good looks and unassuming charm—he’s described multiple times as “gorgeous” or “very attractive.”
Yet Schwartz’s most significant triumph in writing this book is a major one toward the effort to de-stigmatize mental illness. She has placed schizophrenia in a context from which it is typically been excluded: everyday, “normal” life. For anyone who has faced the challenge of telling others about their own mental illness, or who has watched a family member deteriorate, this book will be a source of hope that the story of their struggle can find a wider audience.
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