Book Review: The Quiet Room
My goal with this space includes sharing some of my experience at Columbia and I just finished up one of the best classes I’ve ever taken: Abnormal Behavior. In this class, we were asked to write reviews of specific memoirs (I previously posted one on An Unquiet Mind, which you can find here ). The last paper for our class was a review of The Quiet Room, the story of Lori Schiller - and her loved ones - on their journey through schizophrenia. Here is my review: I hope you enjoy it. (Note: there is some aggressive language quoted from the text, so just bear that in mind.)
When you hear the word schizophrenia, there's a good chance you think of Voices - the infamous, stigmatized symptom most often associated with the disease. But you might not think of the real voices - those of the people close to whomever has been diagnosed. Those who wind up suffering intensely in their own way because of a diagnosis given to someone they love. Lori Schiller’s memoir, The Quiet Room, brings you face to face with these voices as they give their first-hand accounts of what it feels like to have someone you love succumb to such a terrifying illness as schizophrenia. It leaves you with an understanding of just how widespread the effect of a diagnosis can be and of just how many lives on which the Voices - the imagined ones - can wreak havoc.
The Quiet Room, importantly, shows how schizophrenia sucks people in from all around. Schiller and her co-writer Amanda Bennett reveal this by inviting those closest to Lori to contribute to the memoir with their first-hand accounts of experiencing and living through her descent into the full throws of the disease. When any illness snakes its way into someone’s life, it surely has an effect on those in the person’s orbit, but schizophrenia is a special kind of disruptive. In a way, it’s as if tens or maybe even hundreds of evil people have been added to their lives involuntarily as the multitude of Voices in the patient’s head cause him/her to take actions – say things/do things/wish things - that they never would have otherwise.
It is noteworthy, however, that The Quiet Room does not ignore or soften the patient’s experience in order to focus ontheir loved ones’ experiences. Schiller does an incredible job of allowing the reader to experience what went on in her mind when she was hallucinating. The Voices are terrifying. They twist up your insides, somehow made more powerful by the odd way in which they speak. “To die! To die!” (pg. 132), “She must DIE and we will take that pussy to hell with us. That trash! …Needs to suffer more. Needs to swallow our presence” (pg. 152). Schiller doesn’t soften the blow that schizophrenia takes as she describes her downward spiral; she wants the reader to understand and get as close to feeling what she feels when The Voices speak to her. She wants you to know just how hard of a hit schizophrenia throws. The subtitle for her memoir The Quiet Room explains it well: “A journey out of the torment of madness”. It is a journey you sometimes have to close your eyes in as you go through it, which brings the question to mind, “If I, just reading this story, have to close my eyes, how much torture must this madness have been to experience in real life?”
As is typical with schizophrenia, Lori Schiller lived out a completely normal childhood. It wasn’t until “a hot night in August 1967, the summer of [her] seventeenth year, when, uninvited and unannounced, the Voices took over [her] life” (pg. 3). As one might expect, Lori tried to fight what was happening to her and deny its reality. She returned home from camp with what she called “a new task: keeping [her] terrible secret” (pg. 15). She fought hard to live a normal life throughout college and was successful to an extent. But the signs began to proliferate and, after an attempt to escape her struggle through suicide, it became much more difficult to refute what was happening. Lori wasn’t the only one struggling with denial, however, and as the reader begins to hear from Lori’s parents, it becomes clear what it means to watch schizophrenia launch an attack on someone you love.
The parent perspective is fascinating. First, because we gain an understanding of the guilt involved. “Back when I studied psychology in the 1950’s, there was only one cause for all mental illnesses, even the most severe: a faulty upbringing” (pg. 45). Your heart breaks as you read how neither of Lori’s parents will speak about her illness to others, how her father tells the lie that his daughter “’worked’ in a hospital” (pg. 118). It breaks for Lori because her parents are quite embarrassed by her illness and don’t want to make people “uncomfortable” (pg. 118), but it also breaks for her parents whose confusion, frustration, and hope constantly intermingle, almost always a fight against admitting the truth. The parent perspective is additionally fascinating – and necessary - because certain treatments have effected Lori’s ability to remember several large parts of her life, and we can only learn about many of her experiences from those around her. Without her parents input, much of what occurred would likely be lost.
“These gaps in my memory were enormously frustrating. It was like everyone on earth was in on some secret about me. I knew that there were people around – doctors, nurses, my parents, my friends – who remembered things about me that I couldn’t remember about myself. It made me paranoid and angry. What else did they know that they weren’t telling me? What else were they hiding from me?” (pg. 94).
Further, the parent perspective gives the reader empathy for the tricky nature of the disease. As Lori’s mother puts it,
“Sometimes Lori would seem almost well, and it would be the most eerie and frustrating thing…She looked so normal that we kept forgetting she was not…When we looked at her hands and realized she had been punching things or destroying things, we would yell at her as we would have yelled at our normal daughter…Then the very next time, she would be hallucinating and out of it and I would be filled with such guilt and sorrow” (pg. 244).
Even with the prospect of science coming to their aid through medicinal experimentation, Lori’s parents’ hope was dashed every time as the Voices would be decimated temporarily by new pills, only to have them reappear from the shadows with a newfound vengeance, hell bent on destroying their Lori (pg. 229).
Schiller articulates this vengeance in a multitude of ways, one of which is simply done by capitalizing the “V” of the Voices that haunt her. This small acknowledgement, humanizing the Voices by making them a proper noun as if they were real people with capital-lettered names, shows just how real these voices are to Lori.
“And hallucinations? Another word that enraged me. Hallucinations meant that you were seeing something or hearing something that didn’t really exist. But when I heard the Voices screaming at me, they were real” (pg. 90).
Additionally, she demonstrates the “subject-jumping” typical of people with schizophrenia by allowing us to follow a typical train of thought for her:
“Reflections from outside off a freshly plowed snow bank. Mom. Dad. MEDICATION! MEDICATION! Check those pills. Tip the scale every Wednesday. Lithium vampires drawing my blood Tuesdays. Faces watching from the nursing station. Two packs a day. The final chapter. Nothing to do. Carly Simon. Babies crying. Me crying” (pg. 94-95).
On and on her thoughts would run away and scatter, a never-ending stream of unrelated consciousness.
One can imagine how hard it would be to remain goal-focused in any manner – even if that goal is to simply get well - with such confusion occupying the space where coherent thoughts and feelings once lived. In fact, it’s impressive to read how Lori is able to manage working for periods of time. But the reader is reminded of her illness always as her work goals are derailed by her altered thinking, especially as she dives into cocaine use as a way of coping with the Voices.
Schiller also touches on the terrifying nature of thought-action fusion, a symptom of her disease:
“I often spent time in the Quiet Room after [my parents’] visits. When the rage had finally abated and my sick frenzy had subsided, a new awful emotion would emerge in its place. I would be consumed by guilt and terror. I had killed them. My rage had killed them. They had been killed in a car crash on their way home. Their house was really going to burn down and I would have caused it” (pg. 212).
“I was afraid of becoming a murderer” (pg. 200). To go from “normal”, in control of one’s own thoughts and actions, to this extreme of fully believing you are capable of or even have alreadycommitted murder with your thoughts demonstrates the loss of identity many patients feel. This hard look into Lori’s inner thoughts and confusion evokes much empathy for the terrifying experience of schizophrenia; to truly be so afraid of your own thoughts, with no way to escape, must produce a level of exhaustion and depletion of hope incomprehensible to most humans.
The Quiet Room is a draining and arduous read. But in that way, it invites the reader to have a little taste of the experience of schizophrenia – for everyone involved. The ending is a happy one. While therapy was essential and helpful for Lori, new technologies in medicine provided the tipping point for her with the creation of clozapine, a drug seemingly meant for those for whom nothing else seemed to work. But The Quiet Room isn’t about clozapine. In fact, the title itself is a bit misleading in that it expresses that most of the “work” toward Lori’s recovery happened in this “Quiet Room”. Lori did spend much time there and learned to use its quiet as a tool for fighting her symptoms. The truth, however, is that the happy ending comes not from a room or from even one singular person or medication, but from Lori’s strength and commitment to getting well. And from an entire group of people fighting one disease together…fighting to get their Lori back.