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This article by Nicole Plett was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on September 8, 1999. All rights reserved.

Probing an Interior Landscape

Ten years ago, in an article for a medical journal,

writer Ami Sands Brodoff wrote about her experience growing up with

a schizophrenic sibling, describing the deep sense of loss and sorrow

it caused as her "burden of invisible baggage." Now, through

the crucible of fiction, Brodoff has transformed this difficult, highly

personal, and enduring experience into her debut novel, "Can You

See Me?" She dedicates the novel to her brother Andy, "a hero

for making it through each day."

"Schizophrenia is about as common as diabetes in this country,"

explains Brodoff, in an interview from her Princeton home. She cites

the National Institute of Mental Health estimate that one in every

four families has a member who suffers from some form of mental illness.

"This disease is devastating for the person, their family —

really for society as a whole," she says. "And one of the

things that adds to the tragedy is the stigma that surrounds it. One

of my great hopes is that this novel will help bring this illness

into the light."

Brodoff’s dramatic novel chronicles the impact of the disease on a

fictional family, informed by first-hand experience. Set in the 1980s,

it tells the story of Doren and Sarah Solomon, a brother and sister

who were so close during childhood that they shared a secret place,

an imaginary world, and a private language. While Sarah relinquishes

this private haven to navigate the difficult high school years, eventually

becoming an artist, her gifted brother Doren begins to exhibit symptoms

of mental illness in his teens. His private haven remains as real

to him — at times more real — than the realities and limitations

of his daily life. The story chronicles a period in early adulthood

when Sarah struggles to help the older brother she knows and loves,

even as she is losing him to the chronic brain disease that is schizophrenia.

Brodoff reads from and signs copies of "Can You See Me?" at

the Arts Council of Princeton, 102 Witherspoon Street, on Thursday,

September 16, at 8 p.m. Her reading launches the council’s fall literary

series, and part of the proceeds from the sale of the book will be

donated to the Arts Council.

A Princeton resident and a fiction teacher for the Princeton Adult

School and other organizations, Brodoff works as a freelance writer

for magazines, specializing in psychology and health. The parallels

between herself and her fictional character Sarah Solomon include

having grown up in an intensely intimate relationship with an older

brother who developed schizophrenia. Like the fictional Solomons,

Brodoff’s mother, father, uncles, and both grandfathers, are or were

physicians, as is her younger brother. The medical family covers the

gamut of specialties including psychiatry, something that made their

search for appropriate care for her brother particularly frustrating.

Brodoff has also shared Sarah’s fears about losing her own grip on

reality.

"One of the themes the novel explores is how do you love, help,

and understand someone with mental illness without being submerged

by them," says Brodoff. "It’s really about identity, and about

the tightrope in trying to connect and help someone without becoming

merged with that person."

While the novel’s topic is based on experience, Brodoff

says the drama she has woven around Doren and Sarah is pure fiction.

"Although the novel has autobiographic elements it is really a

work of fiction," she says emphatically. "I’m not only a poster

girl for mental illness, I’m a fiction writer. The combination of

what is from life and what is imagined is like a tapestry, it’s a

complex mesh."

Schizophrenia is a brain disease with symptoms that include alterations

of the senses, the inability to sort and respond appropriately to

incoming sensations, delusions and hallucinations, and an altered

sense of self. Although it is often treatable with antipsychotic drugs,

the stigma of schizophrenia is such that the number of its sufferers

to be found in jails, on the streets, and in homeless shelters, is

equal to those being given treatment in hospitals. E. Fuller Torrey,

MD, has written that people with schizophrenia are "the lepers

of the 20th century."

As Brodoff has observed, "Princeton is a hub of mental health

resources. People actually move here to take advantage of some of

these resources. Yet despite being a center, there still is a lot

of stigma and embarrassment surrounding mental illness."

Brodoff was a college sophomore, her brother a college junior, when

he experienced his first breakdown, some 20 years ago.

"It is a chronic illness, and medication can help a lot,"

says Brodoff. "However prescribing medication is not straightforward,

it doesn’t help with everyone, and people react to medications differently."

Further, she says, "the illness has different degrees of severity.

There are some people who can function fairly well with medication,

keeping jobs and families." For those who cannot function without

help, Brodoff believes supervised care in the community is the ideal

solution.

Imagination and visceral, evocative language are Brodoff’s tools in

the telling of "Can You See Me?", a dramatic unfolding of

events of these two young adults locked into what seems like a shared

battle for Doren’s sanity. "To write the story as a memoir would

have been like putting on a straitjacket. I tend to use a lot of images,

have a lot of imaginative leaps in my work, and this is not something

I could do in that form."

"Many of the emotions in the novel are autobiographical, but the

major element that is deeply imagined — and which makes the novel

unique on the topic — is that I include the autobiography of Doren

and his interior landscape in his chapters," Brodoff explains.

Her aim, she says, is nothing less than to offer a window into the

mind of a person with schizophrenia.

The novel is told in chapters that alternate in their point of view

between Sarah and Doren. Sarah tells her story in first person, through

which we learn about the family history and the young woman’s own

hopes and fears. Doren’s chapters are written in the third person,

but from his own experience and comprehension of events, including

periods when hallucinations and fantastical characters dominate his

mind. "Writing in the third person enabled me as a writer to get

deeply inside Doren’s mind, but also to step outside and have distance.

It’s an authentic schizophrenic voice, but it’s also accessible,"

says Brodoff.

Now in her late 30s, Brodoff is married to Michael Atkin, who works

in the pharmaceutical-biotech field; they are the parents of two small

children. Brodoff, who worked on "Can You See Me?" for five

years, started her college education at Oberlin. She spent her junior

year in London, and then, in order to focus on her fiction writing,

transferred to Sarah Lawrence College. Attracted by such faculty luminaries

E.R. Doctorow and Grace Paley, she studied with Joan Silber and Nicholas

Mills, before embarking on a freelance career in non-fiction writing

magazine writing in New York. She later attended graduate school at

New York University, where Booker Prize-winner Peter Carey was her

thesis advisor, and where she also studied with Paula Fox and the

British writer James Lasdun. "You could say I got something special

and different from each one," says the former student, now a teacher

herself.

In addition to teaching in academic and community programs, Brodoff

has taught creative writing at Fountain House in New York City, a

halfway house for people with schizophrenia that is recognized as

a model program for the nation. She has completed a collection of

previously published short stories called "Bloodknots," stories

that linked thematically about families and family-ness, and she is

currently at work on her third book. One chapter of "Can You See

Me?" is excerpted as the lead short story in the literary journal,

TriQuarterly.

"Can You See Me?" is being published somewhat unconventionally

by Xlibris Corporation, an electronic, publishing-on-demand company

that recently moved from Trenton to Philadelphia (U.S. 1, May 6, 1998).

"I have an agent and I had a lot of offers on the book, but it

would have meant messing with it, dumbing it down," she says.

"I wanted to bring the book out as I had written it, and so I

ultimately made the choice to bring it out independently."

Ten years ago Brodoff the medical reporter wrote: "I’ve missed

my older brother with the persistent ache and longing usually reserved

for a loved one lost through death. Although grieving for someone

who has died is painful, some sense of peace and acceptance is ultimately

possible. However, mourning for a loved one who is alive — in

your very presence and yet in vital ways inaccessible to you —

has a lonely, unreal quality that is extraordinarily painful."

Today her brother lives in a supervised group house. Yet she warns

that "it’s dangerous to connect the dots," to look for too

many parallels between her family’s experience and those in her novel.

"As a writer, I’m discovering that the subjects I’m most drawn

to do tend to be social topics," says Brodoff. "But, as Gertrude

Stein might have said, `the novel is the novel is the novel.’"

— Nicole Plett

Ami Sands Brodoff, Arts Council of Princeton, 102

Witherspoon Street, 609-924-8777. A reading and book signing for "Can

You See Me?" $5 adults; $3 students & seniors. Thursday, September

16, 8 p.m.


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