The Storm at the Door – Stefan Merrill Block (2011)

Based on a true story from his family, author Stefan Merrill Block has written an intriguing (and slightly confusing) story about how mental illness affected one East Coast family back in the 1960’s. Block’s grandfather is the subject of the novel, and it is he (and his possible bipolar disorder) that form the foundation of the plot. Mental illness of any sort was never mentioned with many families (and still isn’t in some cases), and was often seen as a source of shame and something to be hidden. So when Frederick Merrill, the author’s grandfather, showed signs of being unpredictable and having poor impulse control in his behavior, one particular event leads his wife, Katherine, and her family to have him voluntarily committed to a fictional mental hospital based on the real-life McLean Hospital. However, even though Frederick was “voluntarily” committed, he cannot be released when he want to go, having to wait until the doctors at the hospital believe he is “better.” However, there is the problem of how to prove you are not mentally ill when you don’t know what your illness really is. How do you know how to be sane?

So, Frederick’s original commitment turns into a months-long endeavor that leaves Katherine in the difficult position of raising their three daughters alone, with little money, and with one parent existing out in a cloud of unmentionable illness. It was the big Elephant in the Room syndrome, as all the family and friends knew that Frederick had been ill. It was just not acceptable (or polite) to ever mention it more than “he had a nervous breakdown” or (more likely) “he went to have a rest”. (Very similar to how mental illness and/or addiction is treated in the case of celebrities nowadays.)

So Katherine struggles to maintain an air of normalcy in a very abnormal situation and without knowing what was really going on with her husband. The clinic doctors kept Frederick’s health information very close to their chests, and would not keep her informed as to his progress, and both Frederick and Katherine were forbidden to contact each other for “therapeutic reasons”. This story has been compared to “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” and it is quite similar in that way in its depiction of how power plays a big role in mental health care.

It’s a compelling story of how one family tries to cope with an unmentionable illness that has no time line, no name and no particular symptoms. Frederick himself is not told his diagnosis, and realizes that he has little power to get a release from the hospital by himself – only by “playing the game” that the doctor in charge requires him to do. It’s quite remarkable how circular this power game is – the doctor refuses to let Frederick or his family know what is going on but they know that the only way to get a release is to make the doctor happy. But how? He is in charge of a game with unknown rules, unknown goals, and rules that keep changing.

There are some good descriptions of some of Frederick’s hospital co-patients, and it is very sad to think that this story (and thus the description of the mental treatments) was close to the truth. Frederick is forced to have ECT with the hopes of him forgetting a transgression that he witnessed between his doctor and a nurse. Unruly patients are sometimes shuttled off to have lobotomies when they become difficult, and a power-hungry crew of young and untrained male orderlies retain control of the unit once the doctors have left for the day.

The title, “The Storm at the Door”, refers to the idea (I think) that however safe and sound your own home is inside, once you step out of the door, it’s a harsh world. It might also refer to the idea that mental illness is also just outside the door for some people and families, whether they want to admit it or not.

Structurally, this book worked pretty well once I got the hang of it. Chapters alternate the omniscient POV of a present-day grandson (the author) looking back at his grandfather Frederick (during his time as a patient) and then looking at his grandmother Katherine as she tries to cope with the changes and lack of information over the years. It was also in present tense (which can be annoying but wasn’t in this case).

A pretty good read, and thanks to Rachel at Book Snob  for sending it to me.

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