“I very much wanted to have lots of children,” says Patrick Tracey, author of Stalking Irish Madness, Searching for the Roots of my Family’s Schizophrenia. “But fear of passing on my family’s disease made it impossible.”
His haunting memoir, published by Bantam last August, was named one of Slate magazine’s Best Books of 2008, awarded the 2009 KEN book award by the National Alliance on Mental Illness, and most recently, recognized with a prestigious PEN award.
After an idyllic childhood as the youngest of five siblings, the first of Tracey’s two sisters succumbed to rapid-onset schizophrenia when he was just eighteen. “One after the other. I realized that like my mother, I could be a carrier. Or worse, might go schizophrenic myself.”
Schizophrenia generally manifests by 30, and when Tracey cleared that bar, he began to think earnestly about marriage, and worry “fervently” about paternity.
“Marriage would’ve suited me fine,” says Tracey, still single at 50. “But every woman I met was frantically running out of eggs, and couldn’t seem to understand that parenthood was off the table for me.”
He tried to tell them he was not Daddy material, given his questionable gene bank. His progressively heavy drinking was another obstacle.
“I was hit hard by my family’s collapse,” he says.
Before he graduated college, his mother died suddenly of a brain aneurysm, he thinks, spurred by “grief and loss” soon after her youngest daughter was diagnosed with the hereditary illness. Having grown up with a mother and brother in the insane asylum, she’d known she was at risk to pass on the disease, but was persuaded otherwise by well-meaning doctors.
Says Tracey, “I felt there was not much point to life if something like schizophrenia–or a similar life-shattering tragedy–could just come along and take someone out.”
He became a serial monogamist, “An outgrowth of my commitment-phobia, itself an outgrowth of my fear of passing on this severe hereditary mental illness. I tried to disguise myself as a noble alcoholic savage. Truly I was all over the place.”
It wasn’t until he hit bottom, alone, that he straightened out. Traveling to Ireland, he found the roots of schizophrenia in maternal malnutrition due to famine. While doing his research, he lived on a campsite where he observed families at close hand, with a raging storm of feelings.
A Fascination with Families
“I am endlessly fascinated by families,” Tracey admits. “The way they interact, their dynamics, what makes them tick, why some find a measure of happiness where others do not, how some play a bad hand well and others with the best cards toss them away. My family was torn asunder, schizophrenia cast a shadow over us all, the sane obsessed that we might be carriers.”
Why didn’t he just find a nice girl and adopt? “The ugly truth is that I was not fit to parent. Drinking was a form of self-laceration — survivor’s guilt, a way of going crazy myself every night — a mixed-up man’s way of crying.”
Though eight years have passed since his last drink, at this stage of his life he’d rather help his ill sisters and his nephew – the sole offspring among his four siblings — than start his own family.
But he feels he’s paid a big price for his choice. “I could’ve been a good father and family man if I hadn’t got lost in despair. I’ve had some great relationships, and vent my paternal spleen through my nephew. The care of him fell to me from the late 1980s through the 1990s, but I never dared spread my own seed.”
When he’s around a particularly well-adjusted family, he can’t help but feel like an outsider: “Families gather with other families, and in Ireland they were out in force.”
A Special Role
He felt less the odd man out when he saw himself reflected in the community. Every other village, he found, has a Bachelor Walk or some bachelor legend. “Ireland has a rich tradition of bachelorhood,” he discovered.
Only the oldest sons were financially eligible for marriage, and they had to wait until they inherited the tiny potato patch. The younger brothers were either sent to the seminary, abroad or became bachelors.
Men’s Biological Clocks
Ironically, Tracey learned, this primogeniture of oldest sons – who only inherited the family property at 50, when their own fathers died – is one of the major contributing factors to schizophrenia itself. Recent studies have linked the schizophrenia gene to a mutation in elderly sperm, detailed in the memoir. www.stalkingirishmadness.com.