Thursday, June 21, 2007
Michael Mack will be my guest on "Poet to Poet, Writer to Writer" July 10
5PM Somerville Community Access TV
Michael Mack is a poet and performer who uses his art to give form to his
feelings about having a mother with schizophrenia and in so doing educates
his audiences about the devastating illness. Courtesy of Michael Mack
The room darkens, and sad, frightening voices echo through the air. Mixing
light and shadow with the skills of an actor and the voice of a poet,
Michael Mack brings the sensations of schizophrenia to his listeners.
The experience is not his directly, but that of his mother, whose
schizophrenia was diagnosed when Michael was 5 years old. Yet the story is
his, too. What child wouldn't be affected by the inexplicable behavior of
his or her mother?
Luckily for him and his audiences, Mack was not shackled by his childhood.
As an adult, he transformed the central experience of that time into a
one-man performance that enlightens patients and clinicians, as well as
people who have never seen mental illness firsthand.
"This has been a tremendously cathartic experience," Mack, 49, told
Psychiatric News. "It keeps the memory of my mother alive, and it's a kind
of mission, opening people's minds."
Patients hear his work as their story. "It's an emotional event for them,"
he said. "It's a human story about a human tragedy that ends up with a
Mack grew up in the Maryland suburbs of Washington, D.C., the oldest of four
children his parents had in the first five years of their marriage. Years
later, he listened to his father tell the story of how he came home to find
Michael's mother in tears and asking if she was the Blessed Virgin (see
box). She was diagnosed with schizophrenia. In periods of remission, she was
a kind and attentive mother, but when the illness returned, her behavior
could threaten and disturb her children.
Once, she gave a party for neighborhood children, handing out cigarettes and
giving away toys belonging to Michael and his siblings.
"I remember it being a real fun party, but at the same time having the
feeling that something was really wrong," he recalled.
The family exhausted its insurance benefits as Mack's mother moved through
hospitals and other facilities around Washington. Eventually, the parents
divorced, and Michael's mother spent the last years of her life in a group
home in Baltimore, where she died of cancer in 2002. She never saw his
performances but expressed surprise that anyone might be interested in her
experiences. His father has seen (and responded positively to) the piece
several times and has brought friends to see it.
"I think it has helped him to see how we saw the situation as children,"
After high school, Mack served in the Air Force, attended community college,
and then went to Sloan School of Business at the Massachusetts Institute of
Technology. His march toward a conventional career detoured into the arts
when he signed up for a course in poetry taught by Pulitzer Prize-winner
Maxine Kumin. For the first time in his life, Mack poured his memories and
feelings about growing up with his mother onto paper. He became Boston's
poetry slam champion. He switched his major to creative writing and
graduated in 1988. Since then, he has worked as a technical or freelance
writer, but his personal and professional focus has been "Hearing Voices
(Speaking in Tongues)," the one-man show that he presents around the
country. His big break came in 1997, when an advocate for people with mental
illness heard Mack recite his poetry and invited him to speak to the Boston
chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness.
As he began writing, Mack went back to the events of his childhood and began
to see them in a different way, experiencing them as an adult, not as a
child. He came to understand what his mother and father did and why they did
it. When he was young, he felt cheated out of his childhood and was angry at
his parents, he said. But in writing the poetry that became his program's
script, he came to understand how they had responded as best they could to
the circumstances of their lives.
Mack never gives the same presentation twice. Each little scene-poem is a
story in itself. He selects elements to construct an essential story that
varies with the place and the audience.
For a general audience, he might have a "doctor" character describe symptoms
of schizophrenia, but leave that out when performing for a more
knowledgeable professional audience. Even they glean value from his show,
however. After a performance at McLean Hospital near Boston, staff members
came up to him and told him that seeing the performance was a way for them
to reconnect with the fundamental reasons they went into the mental health
field, said Mack.
"The performance helped them see the human cost of mental illness and how
they can help," he said.
He recently gave two performances in Rochester, N.Y., the first in a large
auditorium for the general public and mental health care consumers. There,
he performed for an hour and a half, enhancing the show with all the
lighting and sound technology the theater had to offer. Later, before a
smaller group of patients at the Rochester Psychiatric Center, he pared the
performance down to 30 minutes of material that spoke directly to that
For most audiences, he dramatizes auditory hallucinations by immersing the
stage in total darkness for more than two minutes while speaking in the
voices that reflect psychosis. However, for patients, he may ask for the
lights to be lowered rather than turned off and ask the patients to close
their eyes to lessen the chance of fearful reactions. In either case,
patients have told him how much they appreciated his giving voice to what
they have gone through.
Performing for audiences of patients, psychiatrists, and mental health
professionals has led to another kind of insight, said Mack. His recent
presentation at the rochester Psychiatric Center entailed his first visit to
a state psychiatric hospital since he visited his mother in an aging, dingy
facility 20 years before.
"What a change!" he said. "I was so impressed with the building and how
patients and staff interacted."