First of all, it is astonishing to me that we have a nationally recognized theatre company just blocks away from our house, and that they always feature "pay as you can" performances, so going to wonderful productions is relatively easy and inexpensive, and always rewarding. As a matter of fact, a member of their acting company, James Sullivan, one of the nicest guys in the world, lives across the street from our house. James was in this production and played the part of Bob Ewell, the villain of the piece, although the true villains of the book, film and play are bigotry, fear and discrimination.
I first saw the film version of To Kill A Mockingbird when I was a little girl. My mother loved the book and the film and I remember watching it with her, and being impressed by how much she lived out the values of acceptance, openness and kindness to the people she encountered who were different than herself. From the individuals who had physical and cognitive disabilities with whom she worked at the University of Oregon Child Development and Rehabilitation Center, to the Watkins salesman with cerebral palsy who regularly came to our door (and about whom, coincidentally, a film was later made), she made every effort to be friendly, welcoming and nonjudgmental. So it was no surprise that she was so taken with To Kill A Mockingbird. She often reminded me that, as Hispanics, we were in no position to discriminate against others, since we could be the targets of discrimination ourselves. When I was a bit older, I read the book for myself, and was completely entranced.
I will admit that when I saw that PT was going to do a production of Mockingbird, I was skeptical. Would it live up to the book and film? Would I be disappointed by the depictions of beloved characters? But, being a loyal Douglasite, and a friend of one of the cast members, I decided to give it a shot. I wasn't disappointed. The acting was wonderful, the sets simple but very well done, and the costuming lovely. I had forgotten that the backstory, the setting of the town of Maycomb was so very integral to the story, and that was accomplished by the use of the character of Miss Maudie, who served as the narrator. In the film and book, it was the grown-up Scout who was the narrator, so while it was different, it was not jarring.
This isn't supposed to be a review of the play, but a reflection of it through the lens of my recent experience as an advocate for individuals living with mental illness, and my lifelong experience of living with mental illness myself. The character that resonated more than any other in this production was that of Boo Radley, the reclusive neighbor of Atticus, Scout and Jem. Boo was different that the other people in Maycomb. When he was young, he reportedly stabbed his father with a pair of scissors, wiped the blood off and went on cutting paper. He was taken to the jail and would have been committed to an asylum, but his father took him home and kept him inside. The children, Jem, Scout and Dill, made up stories about him and made him out to be a frightening, mysterious figure. Then, Scout and Jem discover little gifts left for them in the knothole of a tree, left there, they suppose, by Boo. The climax of the story is the attack on Jem and Scout by Bob Ewell, who goes after them in an attempt to get to their father, who publicly humiliated him during the trial of a black man who was wrongly accused of raping his daughter. Boo saved the children, and turned Ewell's knife on Ewell, killing him. The sheriff insists that the public be told that Ewell fell on the knife, and that if the townspeople knew that Boo had saved the children, he would become a hero and would be dragged into the limelight, which he had always avoided.
Boo Radley is a symbol of those individuals who live with mental illness, who have been labeled as crazy or scary. In my work at a downtown clinic that serves folks who live on the street, and as a peer mentor for individuals who have been diagnosed with mental illness, I have had the opportunity to encounter such people. Many folks with mental illnesses are able to function in the world with the help of counseling and medications, support groups and advocacy and education organizations like the National Alliance on Mental Illness. While there are definitely people whose symptoms are not controlled and who might be unstable and frightening while experiencing a crisis, the majority of individuals who I have met who live with mental illness are good, kind, functioning, and productive people.
When I was invited to join the board of our local NAMI affiliate, I was hesitant because when I was asked why I joined, I knew I would have to be honest about my own diagnoses of Generalized Anxiety Disorder and Major Depressive Disorder, and be willing to share my own experience as a person living with mental illness. However, since I had just emerged from a three year major depressive episode, that had finally resolved with the help of a medication change, I knew firsthand just how debilitating and paralyzing a mental health crisis could be. I felt it was not only my responsibility to advocate for my peers, but my privilege to do so.
Being a member of the NAMI Juneau Board and receiving training as a Peer to Peer mentor and as a mentor trainer has opened up a world that I had never known. I used to be afraid of encountering a person with mental illness because I thought their behavior might be unpredictable or frightening. However, I have found my peers to be insightful, funny, intelligent, brave and inspiring.
When I have shared that I live with mental illness, some people have expressed surprise. I don't "look" like a person with mental illness. I don't "act" like a person who lives with mental illness, either, at least their ideas of what mental illness looks or acts like. However, in 2016, it was estimated that in the United States, 16 million individuals were diagnosed with depression, 40 million individuals were diagnosed with an anxiety disorder and there were 200,000 cases of schizophrenia. Everyone knows someone who has been affected by mental illness, either a family member or a friend, a coworker or a fellow church member. Many of the people who have been diagnosed receive successful treatment of their symptoms and are able to function. Some struggle with symptoms and require hospitalization.
Popular culture and negative depictions of individuals who live with mental illness add to stigma and marginalization. Education can be a major component to reducing stigma and increasing acceptance and compassion for those who live with these diseases. Advocacy can serve to increase services and funding for research. I am proud to be part of this effort on a local level, and as a part of the larger NAMI organization. If you would like to contribute to NAMI Juneau or to participate in our efforts, please click here.