institutions, mental illness, racism, rehabilitation

Issa Ibrahim’s Memoir of Madness

I have been posting some things about metal illness, race, discrimination, and violence lately. Some of these posts were inspired by my conversations with people at a New York State mental institution, particularly the artist, musician and writer Issa Ibrahim. Issa’s story interested me for various reasons. He became ill with paranoid schizophrenia in his early twenties. At 24, in a bout of paranoia and fear, he took his mother’s life; his illness had him convinced that she was possessed and needed to be exorcised.

At his trial, Issa pled insanity and spent almost twenty years locked up in a mental institution. He was released to an outpatient residential facility for the mentally ill three years ago.

“It was an accident,” Issa repeats every time the deadly incident comes up in our conversations. More than twenty years after the tragic event Issa is still torn by remorse and the ongoing struggle of trying to understand what happened to him over the course of the 47 years of his life. Issa’s complex emotional landscape is reflected in his work; his parents—his father, who died of cancer shortly before Issa became sick, was a jazz musician and his mother was a painter—have always served as an inspiration and an encouragement for his work.


Chain of Command, 1994


Cancer & Homicide, 1996

Last time I spoke with Issa, he explained how his work, when at its best, allows for a sense of forgiveness and peace. “I feel a connection with my mom,” he said as we sat in his room over coffee and cookies. “I just [feel] her presence, or at least a sense of forgiveness, a sense of ‘you’re doing all right, son.’ And so now, whenever I finish a particularly good painting or a particularly good song [and] it’s really better than I thought it could ever [be], I’ll stop for a moment and say, ‘thank you, mom, thank you.’ I feel like a sense of peace in that, more so that she’s forgiven me. It’s a sense of calm within myself finally; part of her lives within me.”

Issa has traced his 20-year-long incarceration in his paintings, music and writing. In March 2012, he self-published a multimedia memoir, titled 330.20 after the Criminal Procedure Law that follows a verdict or plea of “not responsible by reason of mental disease or defect.”

There is much to show and to write about Issa, but for the purpose of this blog he and I decided to feature a small multimedia compilation, including an excerpt from his memoir that addresses the seemingly racially-motivated hierarchies inside the institution. The two paintings we chose are “Chain of Command,” which also deals with this topic, and “Cancer & Homicide,” which depicts Issa’s last memories of his parents. The song “Go Tell ‘Em Like it Was” was recorded and mixed in the room of his outpatient residential facility.

(For an excerpt from Issa Ibrahim’s memoir 330.20: A Memoir of Madness scroll down.)

Song: Go Tell ‘Em How it Was

From Issa Ibrahim’s memoir 330.20: A Memoir of Madness: 

I don’t feel I have much in common with the Mahatas [Mental Health Treatment Aids] who are mostly abusive dullards and virulent racists, to boot. This bothers me because the staff is mostly black and they tend to abuse and victimize the white patients and the minorities who are just too sick for them to form a kinship with. The staff would watch the patients during “prime time,” when the professionals are on duty, and pretty much allow them to work out their relative issues in the safety of this asylum. That is, until the weekend. All the patients were conditioned to dread Saturday morning because this is when the ward staff would come in, put their feet up, eat their sausage, egg and cheese sandwiches with light and sweet coffee delivered from the local deli and begin exacting punishments for long forgotten misdeeds during the week.

I’d sit in the dayroom, astonished and scared while the young black male staff, just a paycheck, keys and ID away from being common thugs, would call out names, days of the week and the petty offenses.

“Greenberg! Remember on Tuesday morning when you wouldn’t put your cigarette out after I told you smoking time was over? How many times did I tell you? How many times? Into the bathroom!”

“Klein! Snack time on Wednesday you took two puddings!  TWO! I saw you, Klein! Into the bathroom!”

Then the offending parties were taunted in their walk of shame by the female staff, “Ooop! I told ya, Klein, didn’t I? I guess you won’t be so greedy next time, huh?”

And the doomed would beg and plead for absolution only to be mocked by the other, luckier, trained patients in a maddening play of pathos. Screams echoing screams, cries for mercy met with overriding manic laughter, all while the radio blasts Bobby Brown and Mariah Carey, and the TV broadcasts cartoon violence that dulls the senses and acts as a precursor and colorful visual to the bathroom beat down given to the Greenbergs and the Kleins, and a smattering of others who didn’t put their cigarettes out or wanted more pudding or changed the channel without asking or did seemingly anything to run afoul of these bullies who hated having to work, let alone on weekends, creating a pecking order of snitches, gofers, sycophants and enforcers, while I sit in the audience and wonder what my role is in this play, desperately trying to blend into the wall.

I often wonder what I would do if I were targeted, humiliated, or even assaulted for some ridiculous infraction. I thank my shaky belief in God that it is not me who is so far gone as to do the sometimes mindless and annoying things that mentally ill people do to incur the wrath of these sisters and brothers who are supposed to be role models but only end up making me feel embarrassed, ashamed and disgusted by my own people. It frightens and troubles me to watch this weekly abuse of power go on, this parade of pain, but there is literally nothing I can safely do about it. 

To buy Issa Ibrahim’s book, click here.