October 9, 2013
How could it be worse?
We ask ourselves this question as our government’s ability to lead our country disintegrates and we are mostly helpless to keep it from happening.
Funny, though, that this concern can evaporate in light of the challenges that face so many of us—loss of job, no prospects for a new one, child in trouble, marriage in disarray, or the mental illness of a family member. Or take the case of the lead character of Lee Smith’s new book, “Guests on Earth,” in which a young person deals with her mental illness without the support and love of a caring family. Evalina Toussaint, the daughter of a “kept woman” in New Orleans, is about 13 years old in 1936 when her brother and then her mother die, leaving her at the mercy of her mother’s lover. Although he does not provide emotional support, he arranges for her to be treated at Highland Hospital in Asheville.
Smith follows Evalina Toussaint’s life at the hospital, her release to attend college, her search for a normal life, and then her return to the hospital for a second round of treatment. Trouble arises and culminates in the great fire of 1948 that took the lives of nine patients, including F. Scott Fitzgerald’s wife, Zelda, all locked inside rooms on the top floor of a burning building.
“Guests on Earth” is Evalina’s story, notwithstanding her protestation that she is a mere narrator. But, as her life shows, through the complex mixture of joy and despair, accomplishment and failure, extraordinary talent and disruption that make up the experience of those affected by mental illness, the story becomes a poignant and personal one for Lee Smith.
She chose the novel’s title from words of Scott Fitzgerald. “The insane are always mere guests on earth, eternal strangers carrying around broken decalogues that they cannot read.”
Smith’s father and son were both treated at Highland for their mental illnesses. Her book becomes a celebration of lives that can be made better with good treatment and loving support. She presents a positive view of the progressive approach taken at Highland Hospital under the leadership of its director, Robert Carroll.
Music, drama, art, dance, gardening, exercise, healthy eating, field trips, and supportive counseling made life at Highland more than tolerable for the patients, even though crude electric and insulin shock treatments sometimes brought about brutal results.
Smith says that in “Guests on Earth” she wanted to (1) offer “a solution for the still-unsolved mystery of that fire,” (2) share “her own ideas about the very thin line between sanity and insanity,” (3) give “her opinion of the psychiatric treatment of women and girls who failed to fit into prevailing male ideals,” and (4) set out “her insights into the resonance between art and madness.”
She accomplishes these objectives beautifully while, at the same time, telling a darn good story.