November, 2015: “Review of The Broken Places: A Memoir by Joseph McBride”
Reviewed by Kathleen Spaltro, Pearson Intranet Website.
An acquaintance of mine, the distinguished biographer and film historian Joseph McBride, just published his memoirs. Besides dealing with emotional disability before, during, and after being institutionalized in a mental hospital in his adolescence, McBride has diagnosed himself as being a high-functioning person with Asperger’s. (He has never undergone a professional evaluation for the diagnosis.) McBride’s riveting and very readable The Broken Places: A Memoir portrays how the stigmatization of mental illness delayed the help that McBride needed, how stigmatization created much unnecessary suffering for McBride, and how stigmatization directly led to the destruction of “Kathy Wolf,” a fellow patient with whom McBride fell deeply in love.
The young McBride’s unrecognized Asperger’s, combined with his intellectual giftedness, created social awkwardness that encountered severe bullying. The oldest of seven children in an unhappy family marred by parental alcoholism and marital misery, McBride endured persistent neglect and emotional abuse. He took refuge in the very strict Catholicism of the time. His tendency towards literalism led to his suffering from religious scrupulosity as he attempted to perfect his every thought and action. His inevitable failure ever to become perfect engendered severe guilt and self-hatred heightened by his concurrent inability to eradicate his powerful sexual urges and imaginings. Emotionally and physically abused at school as well as at home, he sought to erase his constant pain by reaching for intellectual superiority. This coping behavior developed into monomania about studying, overwork, as well as anorexia, and it culminated in a manic and delusional episode. Emotional breakdown led to McBride’s institutionalization for four months at Milwaukee County [Wisconsin] Hospital and (briefly) at Cook County [Illinois] Hospital.
After meeting his fellow patient Kathy Wolf at Milwaukee County Hospital, McBride had an emotional and eventually physical affair with her. Kathy’s authenticity and genuineness challenged and intrigued him. Isolated by institutionalization, Joe and Kathy bonded to create their own world of meaning and connection and deep love. With the outside world being a hostile environment, this protective relationship reminds me of King Lear’s words to his daughter Cordelia after their capture by their enemies:
Come, let’s away to prison.
We two alone will sing like birds i’ th’ cage.
When thou dost ask me blessing, I’ll kneel down
And ask of thee forgiveness. So we’ll live,
And pray, and sing, and tell old tales, and laugh
At gilded butterflies, …
And take upon’s the mystery of things
As if we were God’s spies.
McBride remembers their intense closeness with gratitude and grief—for Kathy’s horrifying decline and death directly resulted from the stigmatization of her mental illness. McBride was luckier. While in the hospital and after his release, he received wise and supportive letters from his mother’s friend Marty, who counseled McBride to abandon the false self he had so carefully constructed in response to overwhelming pressures from parents, teachers, and peers—who urged McBride to stop trying to appease unappeasable pressures.
McBride, the symptom carrier, expressed in his breakdown the distorted and inhumane values and beliefs of his environment. His breakdown afforded him the opportunity to reject these values and beliefs and to create a more authentic self—a process encouraged by his love affair with Kathy. She did not survive stigmatization as an emotionally disabled person, but he did. More than this, he achieved great success as a writer and film historian. He now returns as a writer to the stigmatized experience to exorcise it.
Some might question why his success has not erased his need to revisit such a painful past. But the mind is dyed permanently by such profound experiences. The past integrated by contemplation into the present is, to quote T. S. Eliot,
both a new world
And the old made explicit, understood
In the completion of its partial ecstasy,
The resolution of its partial horror.
Helen Merrell Lynd’s classic On Shame and the Search for Identity addressed both the failure to resolve a sense of shameful identity and the potential rewards for having the courage to confront the inner conflict created by shame. While unresolved shame creates intense anxiety, “transcending shame may lead to a sense of identity, freedom.” Lynd related the courage to confront one’s own shame, to question it, to resolve it, to “the discovery of an integrity that is peculiarly one’s own.” In The Broken Places, McBride has had the courage and integrity to confront, question, and reject the stigmatization of emotional disability and mental illness.
If people bring so much courage to this world the world has to kill them to break them, so of course it kills them.
The world breaks every one and afterward many are strong at the broken places.
But those that will not break it kills.
It kills the very good and the very gentle and the very brave impartially.
If you are none of these you can be sure it will kill you too but there will be no special hurry.
— Ernest Hemingway, A Farewell to Arms