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The Outsider: a journey into my father’s struggle with madness
by Nathaniel Lachenmeyer

1
st edition, copyright 2000
Broadway Books, New York
ISBN 0-7679-0190-8

Review by Dr. Wes Browning

 

A sordid truth about me: I have a lot of trouble motivating myself to read.

Long ago, having to read an impossible stack of mathematics books for what appeared to me to be an impossible oral exam (it was officially on "everything") put a permanent end to my former practice of reading purely to pass the time.

The exam did win me a Masters, which led to a doctorate, in mathematics. Which didn’t keep me from being miserably homeless within 10 years after passing it, due to mental illness.

Nathaniel Lachenmeyer has written a book about a similar case to mine – similar enough to spark my interest, different enough to keep it.

He writes about his own father, Charles W. Lachenmeyer, Ph.D. – a sociologist, author and professor – and about his father’s struggle with paranoid schizophrenia. This disease ended his career and ultimately led to indigence, homelessness, and death.

This is also a mystery book with homeless characters, but of the nonfiction variety. One mystery, which Nathaniel establishes early on, is the mystery of the circumstances of his father’s death. Years after losing contact with his father, he learns that his father has died in an apartment in Burlington, Vermont, apparently well-off, but that just the year before he had been homeless.

How had his father’s situation improved, so that he could be cleaned up and well dressed at the time of his death? What might have led to the heart attack that killed him?

But the real mystery for Lachenmeyer is the nature of his father’s world. He follows every clue that he can find, interviewing case workers, police officers, shelter managers, security guards, former academic colleagues, other homeless people, anyone who might have some insight into the way his father lived toward the end of his life, and above all into how he thought about his life and his world.

Given that paranoid schizophrenia is so difficult to understand – even psychiatrists don’t understand it very well – it’s inevitable that The Outsider should be to a large extent about the changing attitudes of the author toward his subject. It is very compelling on that level.

Lachenmeyer does a good job of conveying how his fear and estrangement from his father evolves into deep respect for the dignity of his struggle. He comes to realize both the enormous obstacles that his father faced simply to survive, and the strength of character that he managed to maintain even when reality was most lost to him.

But the book is also a pleasure to read for the humor that emerges from the story along the way. I particularly enjoyed a transcript of some delightful exchanges as a judge orders Charles to appear for a hearing. When the state’s attorney says, "You understand your obligation to appear at that time?" Charles answers with, "Sure. I’ll be here in a three-piece suit with the Queen of England."

Of course he misses his court date, too busy simply trying to survive on the streets to pay attention to the calendar.

The only reservation I have about recommending The Outsider stems from the harsh treatment that Lachenmeyer gives his father’s parents. I have the feeling that some of his initial intolerance of his father’s condition may have been displaced to the grandparents, and to their Christian Scientist upbringing of Charles.

Still, I’d say read the book and accept that as part of evolution of Lachenmeyer’s attitudes.


Active Books Review