Author Ron Powers offers intimate take on mental illness

CASTLETON/BRANDON — “No one thinks about mental illness until it affects someone close to them,” Ron Powers said. “It’s a primal fear. We see demonic transformation and when we see that, we see versions of ourselves.”

Powers has the unfortunate credentials to speak with authority on the subject.

The award-winning author of many nonfiction works has taken his family’s tragic struggle with mental illness and woven it into a commentary and call to arms on the state of mental health in a new book, “Nobody Cares About Crazy People: The Chaos and Heartbreak of Mental Health in America.”

Powers will discuss and sign copies of the book at the Brandon Town Hall on Thursday, June 1, at 6 p.m.

Powers has seen great successes in his career as a journalist, novelist and non-fiction writer. While working for the Chicago Sun-Times, he won the Pulitzer Prize for criticism, the first person to earn that prize for television criticism. He earned an Emmy Award in 1985 for the work he did on the CBS News program “Sunday Morning.” The biography co-written with James Bradley in 2000, “Flags of Our Fathers,” tells the stories of the Marines who raised the flag over Iwo Jima in World War II; it was a national best-seller and became a feature film directed by Clint Eastwood.

A native of Hannibal, Mo., like author Samuel Clemmons, Powers wrote the well-received biography “Mark Twain: A Life.” He wrote a play based on the younger life of Sam Clemmons that was staged a few years ago at the Town Hall Theater in Middlebury.

The Powers family lived in Middlebury for many years, though he now lives in Castleton. Ron Powers was a professor of creative writing at Middlebury College.

Now 75, Powers has written “Nobody Cares About Crazy People,” a book that provides an intimate account of his family’s struggles after schizophrenia struck both sons. Kevin took his life in the Powers home in Middlebury in 2005, a week from his 21st birthday, after battling the brain disease for three years. His older brother Dean, now 35, has survived the affliction, and now lives with his parents in Castleton.

We spoke with Ron Powers at length during a phone interview Saturday, and the author said the book is contains two stories.

“In a way, it’s kind of two books in one, with two interweaving stories,” he said. “One is what I have discovered about mental illness in this country and the inept efforts over the years to understand it and safeguard the people affected by it. The other side is the story of our family and the discovery that not one, but both of our sons were schizophrenic.”

Powers said he decided to tell his family’s story in order to personalize an issue that many people are afraid of because they don’t understand it.

In the book, Powers focuses particularly on the treatment, or lack thereof, for the mentally ill in America’s prison system.

“We spend $444 billion a year on mental health, and a lot of that is spent in prisons,” he said. “It would be so much more economical to treat these people (before they go to prison), give them care, medications, supervision and opportunities, than to throw them in jail.”

And while, thankfully, neither of his sons was ever incarcerated, Powers said it was important to include their story in the book.

“I wanted to put my sons in the book as examples of the humanity of every single person who suffers under these diseases,” he said. “Before they were crazy people, they were joyous. I wanted to destroy the myths. This is not a ‘Poor Daddy’ story, and it’s not a how-to; it’s a story.”

The author was asked if he wrote the book to spur policy changes in the way America treats its mentally ill.

“I think any writer would say I had a story to tell and I told it,” he said. “What I hope is that the reader will collaborate with me and rethink their attitude toward mental illness. I think mental illness should be our next civil right movement.”

The book recently received a great review from The New York Times, which read: “No doubt if everyone were to read this book, the world would change.”

Susannah Cahalan, author of the bestselling “Brain on Fire,” wrote of the new Powers book, “What makes this book soar is the passion of Powers’ conviction based on his own intimate experiences with schizophrenia. I put this book down days ago and I’m still reeling. It’s the rare book that breaks your life into a before and an after.”

After discussion of his book at the Brandon Town Hall on Thursday, Powers will sign copies. He will also offer signed books at the author’s discount of $14, half the retail price of bookstore copies. Proceeds will be donated to the Brandon Free Public Library. Admission is free. 


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