Click on the image below to read my story about “Malka,” an ultraorthodox Jewish mother, and her mentally ill daughter “Shira.”
Laura Starecheski at the U.S./Mexico border (credit Bob Torrez)
Recently, while accompanying one of my interviewees to an apartment go-see, I met Laura Starecheski, a reporter for NPR’s State of the Re:Union. As it turned out, Laura and I had chosen the same subject! (Or maybe the subject had chosen us?) As I was watching Laura do her job—geared up with huge headphones, recorder and mic—I was struck by how different our journalistic approach is. After the go-see, while having lunch at a little Guyanese restaurant way out in Queens, we realized we had a lot in common. Laura, too, has done feature stories on prisoners, immigrant communities and the mentally ill. She often follows her subjects for months, sometimes years. And most importantly, she seems to genuinely care about her protagonists.
Laura has created stories for The World and Latino USA and won a Third Coast Silver Award for Best Documentary for her story “Goat on a Cow,” which aired on WNYC’s Radiolab. She was a National Health Journalism Fellow at the USC Annenberg School and most recently received a Rosalynn Carter Fellowship for Mental Health Journalism.
I’m thrilled that Laura agreed to answer some questions about “longform radio reporting.” (A reverse interview with me by Laura will follow).
Sabine Heinlein: For your Ozarks story, which aired on State of the Re:Union in May 2012, you followed the family of CJ Mahan who is serving a life sentence for murder in a maximum-security prison in Missouri. How did you find the family?
Laura Starecheski: I found the Mahans through a program called 4-H LIFE that teaches inmates how to be better parents. The program works with mothers too, but I was curious about the particular challenge of fathering from behind bars—especially in a maximum-security prison with long sentences. How do incarcerated fathers stay engaged with day-to-day parenting? How do their kids relate to them? The 4-H LIFE staff put me in touch with the Mahans and helped facilitate the process of getting permission to record and take photographs inside the Jefferson City Correctional Center during one of their meetings, which happen just once every two months.
Cindy and CJ Mahan and daughter Carlie
SH: What did it feel like to go to prison and talk to the Mahans? Did you get to meet and observe any other prisoner families? What was the setting like?
LS: Once we were inside, I saw ten loving, excited and emotional families flood into the room for the 4-H meeting. I wished we had enough time to do stories on every family. Each one was so different. There was a man whose sister had brought her kids to visit from another state; a young father with two daughters being raised by their grandparents while he served his time; an older man everybody called “Uncle Walt” who didn’t have family but was sort of a patriarch to the whole group. The stakes at the meeting felt very high. The inmates must earn a place in the prison’s “honor wing” just to be a part of the group. That alone can take years, and they can lose the privilege at any time for any infraction. I got the sense that many of the inmates worked extremely hard to stay out of trouble so they could attend the special 4-H meetings, where they could share hugs and laughter and feel like they were truly parents for a few hours. Almost everyone in the room had broken down and cried—in gratitude, in frustration, in love—at least once by the time the meeting was over. I also felt that in that room I was more welcomed as a reporter (and a person) than most of the other places we reported across the Missouri Ozarks, which was a striking feeling.
When we interviewed CJ Mahan alone in a separate room, though, I got a glimpse of what life in the rest of the prison must be like. It was clear that CJ was bound by the rules of day-to-day life on the inside, no matter how much he longed to be a full-time father and husband. He had a reputation to uphold, and it seemed to be an incredible challenge for him to stay away from the fights and violence that dictate much of the social order. His desire for another future, outside, was intense and palpable to me. And yet even as a temporary visitor, the razor wire and heavy doors of the prison seemed to enclose a universe that felt almost impossible to escape. Getting access to any prison to report these days is difficult, but some day I would like to do a story that could shed some light on that world of life on the inside.
Laura recording Cindy and CJ Mahan at the 4-H LIFE meeting
SH: I recently watched you interview one of your subjects. I noticed that, while we may ask the same questions, the answers to those questions vary (if not in content than in emphasis). Some people appear to become self-conscious in a very particular way. Do you feel like people respond to you in a certain way because you’re wearing headphones and holding up a microphone? Do you think there’s a difference in how a subject responds to a radio reporter as opposed to a print reporter? Continue reading
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. Continue reading
I’ve recently noticed that Salon.com has been posting an increasing number of articles concerning America’s mass incarceration, police brutality, lack of gun control and appropriate health care for the mentally ill. Among the many interesting stories about these urgent—and interconnected—issues one stuck out in particular: In “Half of people shot by police are mentally ill, investigation finds,” Natasha Lennard sums up a study conducted by two newspapers from Maine. She notes that “a lack of police training in crisis intervention as fueling the problem, undergirded by a lack of oversight and accountability.”
Lennard’s article about police officers shooting mentally ill people reminded me of journalist and documentary filmmaker George Stoney, whom I had the privilege of meeting a couple of years ago, shortly before he died at the age of 96. Stoney, most famously known for the invention of public access television, worked relentlessly on illuminating (and improving) the lives of the forgotten. Of his many works, one of my favorites was “Booked for Safekeeping” (1960), a short film that advises police on how to approach mentally ill people.
One hint: Guns did not play a role. Neither did injury or violence. Instead, calm talking, patience, empathy, and gentle physical contact once the disturbed person was ready to allow the officer to approach him.
What I take away from Stoney’s movies is that we have to begin solving problems before they escalate and before anybody gets hurt, killed or locked up.
We have to ask ourselves why a first-world country doesn’t offer more nonviolent intervention, such as proper and readily available mental health care and apt police training and oversight.
Here’s part of the article by Natasha Lennard:
An investigation by the Portland Press Herald and Maine Sunday Telegram has found that a disturbingly high percentage of individuals shot by police suffer from mental health problems. There are no federal statistics on police shootings of mentally ill people, but according to the investigation published this week, “a review of available reports indicates that at least half of the estimated 375 to 500 people shot and killed by police each year in this country have mental health problems.” Continue reading
I’ve recently been spending time with patients and staff who provide and/or participate in cultural day programs at a state mental institution in New York City. In line with my first book, Among Murderers: Life After Prison, I want to find out which methods of “rehabilitation” currently predominate and how individuals create communities within institutions. How do they bond and how do they distance themselves from those they don’t want to associate with? How do staff, patients and volunteers survive the daily challenges they face, individually and as a group? Having interviewed inmates and staff in the institution’s farming and art programs, I’m also interested in the remaining traces of earlier “rehabilitative” methods. I’m not sure yet whether this will lead to a story or another book (or both), but I do know that I want to continue to convey the daily lives of people at society’s margins to the general public.
Naturally, my ears perked up when a friend mentioned Benjamin Reiss’s Theaters of Madness: Insane Asylums and Nineteenth-Century American Culture. I was particularly absorbed by the book’s second chapter, in which Reiss writes about a troupe of blackface performers that assembled within the New York State Lunatic Asylum in Utica in the mid-19th century. The group called itself the Blackbird Minstrels of Asylumia.
The idea of rehabilitating mentally ill patients by forcing them to participate in debating societies, lecture series, literary journals, dance and dramatic groups came about in the early 19th century. Culture, it was discovered, could be used as a therapeutic tool—and as an opportunity for surveillance and discipline. Under the aegis of culture, authorities attempted to enforce societal norms and standardized, moral behavior, and those who were forced to carry this “ideological baggage” were easy prey. Mental patients in state institutions are for the most part severely sick, isolated and, incapable of resistance.
Here is how Reiss reflects on the irony of white schizophrenics in burned cork and grease performing for patients and staff in the New York State Lunatic Asylum:
“In masking themselves, the outcast actors imitated figures who were equally outcast—the slaves and urban Northern blacks who were tarred by blackness much as the actors themselves were stigmatized by the label of insanity. They enacted scenarios of slave life for the ultimate captive audience; and under the watchful eye of the asylum authorities, they turned a famously unruly form into a spectacle of their own capacity for self-control.”