In 1935, when Marie Balter was a 5-year-old named Pat, her unmarried alcoholic mother turned her, though not her older and younger sisters, over to a foster home. From there, the childless Bartellos, a 50-year-old fisherman and his 55-year-old second wife, adopted her, changed her name to Marie, and took her to live in Gloucester, Mass. Within a year she had mastered the Italian spoken in her adoptive home and settled into a sheltered and severely disciplined working-class Catholic girlhood.
At 14, however, she was removed, at her own request and on the recommendation of a social worker, to St. Therese's Home for Girls, and she lived for much of the next couple of decades in one institution after another: a home for indigent women, the psychiatric ward of a general hospital, finally Sutton State Hospital, known to its residents as "the Castle."
After her last admission, she was shuttled from one ward to another, depending on the severity of her symptoms, for eight years. At the end of two harrowing years in Ward B-1, most of them spent lying in a fetal position in bed, she sat up abruptly and decided: "I don't want to be here!"
"To this day," she writes, "I don't know why the insights . . . came when they did or how I began to translate them into action." But translate them she did, working her way onto an open ward, then into the Castle's rehabilitation workshop program, and at last into a job and an apartment in the "outside world," as all of us confined to mental hospitals quickly learn, with hope and dread, to call it.
With the support of a widening circle of friends, Balter gradually built herself a productive and satisfying life, graduating from a community and then a state college, marrying a man she had worked with in the rehabilitation workshop, becoming a social worker, earning a masters degree in education from Harvard.
Even cancer of the bladder and later her husband's death could not overwhelm her: "This time," she reports with a note of well-earned satisfaction, "I survive." Today, fulfilling the vow she made at the beginning of her recovery to "help those who remain in the hospitals," she is director of community affairs at the same institution where she spent so much of her young adulthood.
A tale so fraught with adversity and accomplishment is intrinsically heartwarming. And perhaps a warm heart, in an age when most of the stories on every night's news can freeze the blood, is all that many readers will ask. But readers who value literary style and analytic insight may find "Nobody's Child," the collaborative effort of Balter and one of her Harvard professors, Richard Katz, disappointingly awkward and superficial.
Part of the blame must fall upon the editor who permitted sentences such as "She just laughs--smiling" to stand. And surely someone--perhaps that same editor--ought to have told Balter what virtually every teacher of writing tells beginning students: Show, don't tell.
Now and then, especially when describing herself at her "craziest," Balter comes up with an arresting image, as when she hallucinates that her eyeteeth form into "dripping ice-fangs." In general, however, she summarizes her experiences in language too abstract to evoke empathy. At 9, for instance, she is "deeply--and secretly--involved in a devotional life," though we aren't told what this entails except her singing hymns in English so that Pa, who despises the Church, won't decipher their content. I want to hear that 9-year-old voice piping "Jesus loves me, this I know" as Marie watches Pa from the corner of her eye, fearful that he'll guess somehow that the song is religious and lock her in the dim cellar again, excited at the same time by her own defiance. Such scenes--brief and sharp--are essential to bringing a narrative to life.
A more serious shortcoming lies in Balter and Katz's refusal to analyze "Marie's life, trying to explain why she got sick, or how she managed to leave the hospital," because the book is thus reduced to a series of events whose wider significance remains unprobed.
"Through most of this two-year period on B-1," Balter writes, for example, "when I'm at my sickest, beset by fears all around me, I'm on a controversial drug program," prescribed because she was misdiagnosed as schizophrenic when the diagnosis "should have been endogenous depression and panic attack." Might she have been at her sickest because of the controversial drug program? Indeed: "I believe that in addition to the illness I was already suffering from then, the panic disorder, I was also suffering from a toxic reaction to overmedication or what is called today "toxic psychosis."
Instead of exploring the connections between madness and medication--and their implications not only for herself but for thousands upon thousands of others similarly victimized--she raises and drops the subject within three pages and rushes on to the next incident. The effect of thus telling what happened with little regard for why or how trivializes the material. Not surprisingly,"Nobody's Child" already has aired as a made-for-television movie.
As a woman once confined to a mental hospital in the same state system as the Castle, similarly misdiagnosed (though happily with less disastrous consequences) and blessed like Marie Balter by both the desire and the social support necessary for returning to the "outside world," I admire her willingness to tell her painful story in the hope of helping others.
But I believe that the issues raised by the experiences of those of us who have been labeled "mentally ill" are far more complicated than "Nobody's Child" suggests. And I worry that a refusal to scrutinize their causes and consequences in all their complexity will encourage people to view mental illness, like other critical social issues (AIDS, homelessness, missing children), as little more than the basis for a two-hour entertainment. Not at all, I feel sure, what Marie Balter would wish.