Category: Archive

Open wound

February 17, 2011

By Staff Reporter

In his book, Tracey journeys to discover the full brunt of the disorder, stemming from his maternal bloodline in County Roscommon. The first occurrence was in the form of a great-great-great grandmother, Mary Egan, during the Famine.
But skipping ahead to post-World War II America, by the time Patrick, the youngest child and only son of Patrick and Millie Tracey was born, the family was the picture of success. His sisters Elaine, twins Seanna and Michelle (Chelle), and youngest daughter Austine were debutantes and child models. Their father owned a successful religious supply store in downtown Boston, and Millie was pictured on the front cover of the Boston Globe in 1960 as the first Massachusetts mother of five to earn a law degree.
But something was always lurking in the background. In his book, Tracey vividly recalls visiting his grandmother May, who would come to live out her days in a Rhode Island institution after paying a dentist to pull all her teeth out, convinced it would quiet the voices in her head. Then there was Uncle Robbie, a World War II veteran who was sent to live on an institutional farm after returning from the war, either because he was shell-shocked or, as Tracey’s mother believed, schizophrenic.
He recalls schizophrenia “hitching a ride on the bumper” of their car, however, as the diagnosis wasn’t to lay low for long. Millie had been wary of having children of her own, knowing the family history and convinced it was genetic. Tracey recalls her grim acknowledgment, when in 1976, Chelle experienced the rapid onset of schizophrenia, followed by Austine two years later.

Going to Ireland
Tracey watched his family descend into something hardly recognizable from the prominent, good-looking family that would arrive to Mass minutes after it began so they could make a grand entrance.
His parents divorced after a move to Providence and a family restaurant failed. His mother suffered an aneurysm and died shortly after Austine’s diagnosis. Tracey himself went off the rails, moving to Washington, D.C. and indulging his own inner demons with alcohol and drugs until getting sober and moving to London. It was there he met a British doctor who mentioned the discovery of the world’s first genetic link to schizophrenia, in Roscommon, no less – where Tracey’s maternal family was from.
In 2006, he set out for Ireland, harboring neither fond memories nor any sentimental attachment to his ancestors’ homeland, but instead looking to reconcile his family’s experience. It had long been assumed that the Irish had higher rates of madness, but this probably had more to do with colonization and Famine, as Tracey came to learn.
Schizophrenia itself is often misunderstood. It is, in essence, a combination of the hearing of voices, paranoid delusions, and disorganized speech and thinking. Because of its manifestations, it is commonly confused with bi-polar disorder and dissociative personality disorder. Pretty evenly diagnosed in men and women, it is more common in large urban centers. Social disadvantage and substance abuse are both risk factors.
The most important clue, however, is the genetic discovery in 2002 that Tracey went to Ireland in the wake of.
“My interest in schizophrenia started when my sisters had their onsets, because it comes out of nowhere, and we were told that they’re was nothing we could expect that there could be done about this,” he said. “I was hopeless until I heard about the gene link.”
In “Stalking Irish Madness,” no “ah-ha!” moment awaits the reader; Tracey instead gives us a thorough examination about how the disorder managed to take root in Ireland. Famine is largely considered a root cause, as malnourishment during gestation increases the risk for a child to develop schizophrenia.
“It’s clear what’s going on,” said Tracey. “It’s about the Famine.”
Tracey also tells that the typical late age of male paternity in Ireland affected the odds as well – on the post-Famine times, by the time a man became eligible and inherited a farm he could have been 50 years old.
It was largely qualitative evidence Tracey was coming across in the form of conversations, observation and the occasional musty record book.
“Scientists liked this book, and liked the way I approached it,” said Tracey. “They need hard numbers that they will never have.”
Tracey experienced hospitality and warmth in the homeland of his immigrant ancestors. But since was his reason for being there was investigating a disease that had ravaged families, he found some people wary of his motives.
“There’s a line that you do not cross with the Irish – and they’re not the only ones guilty of that, of course. But schizophrenia is a word that frightens people still, which is why I felt I had to write this book.”
“I wasn’t there to tear the covers off the family secrets,” he said. “The Irish may be repressed but it’s got nothing to do with schizophrenia,” said Tracey.
While some people were more sympathetic then others when the subject of madness came up, Tracey noted that often it was like “throwing a cat amongst pigeons.”
Tracey had to suspend his own reality for some of his travels. As he found himself doing things like filling water bottles from a spring long thought to cure madness, crawling into a narrow cave on Halloween night, or visiting old peasant asylums, he went in with an open mind.
“When your sisters start talking to mysterious voices, you tend to be willing to believe almost anything,” he said. “I’m taking science on the one hand and folklore in the other hand, and taking them together by speaking to people in person.
“I do know that I was aware I was on a journey and going to the well to get the water is kind of a convenient way of telling it,” he said. “It’s the classic grail search.”
The reality he lived with as his sisters succumbed to schizophrenia was another kind of journey entirely.
“Our world was crumbling like a house of dust,” Tracey wrote of the mid-1970s

The greatest gift
Today, Tracey is closer to his siblings than he has been in years.
Chelle and Austine, in particular, are “better than ever than in the last three decades. This book has a lot to do with it.
“You always have somebody in mind when writing a book — first and foremost I had Chelle,” said Tracey.
While Tracey said Austine is “too far gone” to understand the book, and Chelle can’t read because her medication has damaged her eyesight, she is enjoying the attention.
Ever the actress, Chelle “loves the book,” reports Tracey. “She is getting special treatment in her group home. It’s adorable to see her reveling in her newfound stardom.”
When the book first came out, Tracey took Chelle around bookstores in Boston to see the response.
“This, to me, is the greatest gift,” said Tracey.
“I’m a bit of an outsider in my own family. I do feel very close to them but Seanna [a cancer survivor] was my way back in. We’re kind of like kindred spirits.”
Upon returning to the U.S. in December 2006 he went to live with her in Massachusetts. While writing the book he went through a whole different set of emotions, which he acknowledges was like “treating an open wound.”
“I was haunted by voices in my head – one said ‘you’re throwing your sisters under the bus for the sake of art.’ The other would say ‘that’s OK, this could be great.’ In the hands of a better writer it would be,” he said. “Those are my demons.”
A year and a half of struggle and success later he produced a clean – “unusually clean” – manuscript.
“I figure there are two types of stories,” he continued. “You either write about a journey or about a stranger coming to town. With this, you get the journey and the stranger coming to town.”
For more information, visit www.stalkingirishmadness.com.

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