Stalking Irish Madness: Patrick Tracey

Patrick Tracey, author of Stalking Irish Madness

By Kara Rota, Contributor
December / January 2009

Patrick Tracey’s first book, Stalking Irish Madness: Searching for the Roots of My Family’s Schizophrenia, is a memoir, a research document, a medical ethnography, and certainly a page-turner. As Tracey says, “There’s many, many ways to write a book about schizophrenia. But I had my story to tell and to tell it this certain way.”

The story Tracey has to tell is one that begins years ago, with a woman named Mary Egan. The Egan line is the one Tracey chooses to follow in his search through Ireland, as Mary Egan serves as the historical link that brought the “Irish madness” down to Tracey’s grandmother, May Sweeney, and eventually to two of his beloved sisters, Chelle and Austine.
The diagnosis first of creative, theatrical Chelle, then later of Tracey’s confidante and best friend, Austine, smashes a fragile family dynamic and sends Tracey into the depths of his own drug addiction and despair. “There’s stuff there just from my own life—I didn’t want to do a big drunkalogue, or a drugalogue, you know. But I let you know that it was pretty severe,” he says.

Out of this period came the decision to undertake the journey to Ireland that shaped and became Tracey’s book. “I just sort of woke up sober in London,” Tracey reflects, “and there it was, Ireland was right next door. I’d heard about this gene link and just thought, I’ve got to go investigate it, you know, and I sort of realized at some point that this could be a book and the book could be worth something. I didn’t know what. I also knew that I had to basically go there and bring the news back home to my sisters.”

Tracey is clear about the fact that Stalking Irish Madness was written, first and foremost, for Chelle and Austine. “My sisters wept when they read it and felt that it was a nice—you know, it was an offering. And that’s what it is. I think every book is sort of an offering. Here it is; this is mine.” This emotional attachment to the subject matter shines through on every page, but the book is also a gritty and engaging travelogue that pulls the reader along with it through the gorgeous Roscommon landscape as well as the muddy campgrounds where the author sleeps.
While his own story is not the focus of this book, the writing and the experience clearly belong to Tracey. “It’s definitely a memoir in the sense that it’s the world through my eyes. It’s not really about me, it’s how I see the world, trying to get the reader in my body, or rather, in the passenger seat, and I’m just telling you the story as I’m bumping through Ireland in my ’94 Nissan minivan with the bad radio. That just seems like a natural way to tell a story, especially in the oral Irish tradition.”

Stalking Irish Madness opens with a spooky scene of Tracey exploring the caves of Roscommon on Halloween night. Tracey speaks of how Irish fairy legend was blamed for people hearing voices in older times, a mythology that still holds weight among some believers. Tracey, however, is ready to move on to a different explanation.  “I try not to club people over the head with science, but it’s important to understand that the fairies were framed. They said the Irish were away with the fairies, but it wasn’t fairies, it was what I call a three-legged stool of schizophrenia. The famine—[specifically] maternal malnutrition—alcoholism—and the last one is late age of paternity. That’s the three-legged stool of schizophrenia, and specific conditions were set up in the west of Ireland for that. It was all in the same DNA stew.”

I’m not surprised by his mentions of famine and alcoholism, but the late age of paternity factor is one I haven’t heard before. Tracey explains, “You couldn’t get married, you didn’t become eligible until you hit about fifty and inherited the family farm. So there were a lot of copy errors in the sperm of old men. The science is a bit boring, but I’ll just give you a little bit. Men’s sperm cells copy every sixteen days and they replicate. By the time we’re fifty there’s a lot of what are called ‘copy errors.’ It’s just that, just what it sounds like. There are errors that are made in the DNA of the cells that get copied. There’s more than twice the rate of schizophrenia in children born of fathers for every ten-year jump in the age of paternity. So really, the lesson is that men should be having children at a young age if you want to reduce risk.

“The other thing that’s well known is the link between famine and schizophrenia. That also doubles the risk. And in people who were born of mothers who carried them through a famine, the risk of schizophrenia is nearly triple.” Much of Tracey’s theory comes from the Dutch hunger studies done in Rotterdam during World War Two. “They have found much higher rates of addiction, schizophrenia and manic depression among children who were carried through that famine. They tracked them for decades. These are solid gold studies. They don’t really say too much about the experience of the Dutch, but if you take that set of data and apply it like a grid to Ireland, it’s a no-brainer…it simplifies everything.”

While treatment of schizophrenia in America still largely focuses on antipsychotics and other pharmaceuticals, “we’re actually behind now,” says Tracey. While in Ireland, Tracey encountered the Hearing Voices Network (HVN), which holds meetings that consist of “likeminded voice-hearers helping each other out—they’re just taking basically the drug and alcohol recovery model, twelve-step recovery.” The HVN is based on the concept of allowing schizophrenics to acknowledge and eventually learn to control their voices. “They are finding that a cure for schizophrenia is really not in the cards. What is in the cards is recovering, on a daily basis, from the worst of their voices. It turns out that mental health for [schizophrenics] is really no different from mental health for us. We all have our voices. My voices might be telling me, ‘Oh, I’m going to be nervous in this interview and I’m going to say something and slip up and I won’t sound good and smart’—and that’s my first-person voice. My sisters have third-person voices; they come from outside their heads. But they can control their voices in the way that we need to control the better ranges of our nature and just try to be positive. They can tap into their positive voices. When doctors tell them that their voices are bollocks, that their voices don’t exist, it completely invalidates their experience. They’ve got nowhere to go. This is why the Hearing Voices Network will be the biggest thing there is in schizophrenia. And it already is in Europe… It’s undeniable. The proof is not measured in gene variants that have been replicated in twin studies in other countries and stuff. Science likes that, they like hard empirical evidence. But the proof is in the pudding. You talk to these people and they’re dealing with life, they’re recovered. But they have to tend to themselves like a garden every day.”
Along with the HVN, the Mad Pride movement has also emerged from within the schizophrenia community. “They call themselves the last barricade of the civil rights movement,” explains Tracey. “And they demand to be heard and they don’t want to be forced to take medicine. They’re willing to take medicine, many of them want to take medicine, but they don’t want to be forced…these are very progressive people and they’re the people that are leading this movement. It is a movement.”

As anyone who has gone to Ireland to search for their genealogical roots can tell you, the journey can be filled with dead ends and frustration. The process becomes even more difficult when the focus of the search is schizophrenia. “Well, I mean, in Ireland [genealogy] is an industry and they’ll welcome you with open arms,” says Tracey. “But the word schizophrenia—it’s a country no one wants to visit… So I knew I had to step very lightly, I had to tread lightly. Because this is the most severe form of mental illness, and it scares the s*** out of people. So you just don’t go poking around in the back lanes of Roscommon asking about this.”

Along the way, Tracey does encounter refusals to discuss what is often seen as a private family matter.  When I ask how he approached the subject with the Irish with whom he spoke, he replies, “I did tiptoe, I didn’t knock hard, I didn’t kick down doors, because it’s just the beginning of the conversation. I hope [the book] opens up a conversation with the Irish, between Ireland and America, in families afflicted, and  that we begin to talk more about it.”

Transforming generations of shame and suffering into an open dialogue between schizophrenics, those who love them, and the medical community in both Ireland and America is an ongoing process, and Tracey’s book is indeed a great contribution.

Stalking Irish Madness has already garnered critical attention, and has been chosen by the American Booksellers Association for their Indie Next List and featured on indiebound.org. “I’m really happy about that, it’s very positive,” says Tracey. “Oh, and they sent me a t-shirt, and then I went and had my man Arturo snap a photo of me in the t-shirt and I sent that to the guys in sales, whoever they are. But just the fact that there are people in my life who are called the guys in sales! It means things are on the rise.”

Patrick Tracey, a former contributing writer for the Washington City Paper and Regardie’s in Washington, D.C., has also written for Ms. magazine and the Washington Post. Tracey now lives with his sisters in Boston, Massachusetts.

3 Responses to “Stalking Irish Madness: Patrick Tracey”

  1. Beverly says:

    Just finished this book. Was led to it by comments on Tomas Cahill’s FB page of his book How The Irish Saved Civilization. Awesome, awesome book. Feel so badly for his unmothered mother, and her disastrous family dynamics, and how overcome she was when two of her daughters were diagnosed with the mental illness that she had wanted to avoid. Such a sad story, but so informative. My 23andme results show that most of my ancestry is from the British Isles, and there is plenty of mental illness on both sides of my family that no one wants to appropriately deal with or talk about. There is definitely a heirarchy of those with mental illness in my family of origin. I do hurt for the author of this book as well…

  2. Peter Garland says:

    Well, well, I was heroically ploughing through this till his becoming potty mouthed let me off the hook. Science indeed. I’ve noted that when people opt for scatology, they have thrown their thinking apparatus out the window and are merely indulging in babyism.
    I was hoping for something that might give me insight into some crazy passionate Irish I grew up under – but this gives me little.

  3. Linda Gannon says:

    Patrick, regarding the rights of the mentally ill, my late mother truly believed that there should be communities for them, preferably a beautiful island where they could be themselves as well as safe. Among the saddest indignities they suffer, they are very aware of their suffering and hate the way the meds make them feel. My brother used to say, “Is there no place on earth for me? I always considered it a fair question.

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