Irish-American journalist Tracey explores the perplexing disease that has plagued at least four generations of his family.
The debut author considers himself a “genetic near miss” from schizophrenia. Two of his four sisters, his uncle, his grandmother and her grandmother before her were all “away with the fairies,” as the Irish describe those suffering from mental afflictions. Tracey narrates with innocent pain his sisters’ worst episodes: Chelle strutting down the aisle naked at Mass, informing the shocked congregation that Jesus Christ was her husband; Austine lunging toward another sister’s boyfriend with a kitchen knife. After his mother’s sudden death, the author turned to booze and drugs before anticipating his own crack-up and getting sober. A chance meeting with a London doctor revealed that during his lost period he had missed headlines announcing “the discovery of the world’s first gene link for schizophrenia”—in his ancestors’ very own County Roscommon. Inspired to learn why Ireland has been such fertile ground for schizophrenia and how this gene settled into his bloodline, he headed to his homeland. Chapters describing his visit offer a guidebook to Irish madness, from Celtic fairy caves to the infamous asylum at Ballinasloe to the healing well at Gleanna-a-Galt. Tracey met with the epidemiologist who discovered the gene abnormality, with people from Schizophrenia Ireland and the Hearing Voices Network, and with villagers who perhaps shared his DNA. The causes of schizophrenia are still not well understood, he writes, but four of the most common links—emigration, famine, substance abuse and older fathers—are frequently aspects of the Irish experience. Nonetheless, the Irish are not more genetically predisposed to insanity than any other nationality. Though the long historical passages are interesting, they could have been better integrated with the more compelling and immediate family narrative.
A sincere memoir of grief and hope that honors Irish folklore while giving modern medicine its due.