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'Running from Crazy'

This weekend, I went all the way to Salt Lake City to see a movie by two-time Academy Award winner Barbara Kopple. The movie is documentary about the life of Mariel Hemingway. To be transparent, Barbara made a movie about me, and I am publishing the book Mariel wrote with her life partner, Bobby Williams. It’s titled “The Willing Way.”

Mariel has been involved in suicide prevention work. Seven of her relatives committed suicide. I’ve had three-and-a-half relatives commit suicide; they were cousins. Half? Yes, one of my cousins had a failed attempt and was confined to a wheelchair until he died of a heart attack. Many of us come from families with less than total mental health, but for Mariel Hemingway the suicides are a legacy she can’t quite get away from easily with her famous grandfather, Ernest, and a sister among the seven.

The national figures are staggering. The Centers for Disease Control, or CDC, puts suicide as the 10th leading cause of death in the United States. In 2010, there were 38,364 suicides, making 2010 the year with the highest rate of suicide in the last 15 years. Suicide rates have also risen at an alarming rate in the armed forces. The American Society for Suicide Prevention says that this translates into a suicide every 15 minutes, and this does not include “accidents” not classified as suicide. The data from that is more difficult to quantify.

Is a family history of suicide nature or is it nurture?

Those were questions that many psychology students in the last part of the 20th century were asking. Debates on this question would take hours of class/teaching time. Now we know that genetic predisposition is not so black and white. There is the new field of “epigenetics” that examines gene expression and its alteration by the environment in which a person lives. Things and experiences such as alcohol, war and the legacy of the Holocaust are now thought to actually change what is written into our gene code.  One psychiatrist, Beulah Parker, tried to tease this out in a fascinating book published in the early 1970s. “A Mingled Yarn” traces one family and its schizophrenic offspring to a long history of family problems. Also, from that era, Jules Henry’s “Pathway to Madness” attempts to show how crazy family dynamics can generate mental illness. We now know in this first decade of the 21st century that the nature or nurture argument is more complicated. “Running from Crazy” leaves the viewer plenty of leeway to sort out and discuss these complexities.

The Hemingways have alcoholism and addiction somewhere in their genetic code, and Mariel’s refreshing honesty brings up how those predispositions can underline the mixed emotions most of feel in our family lives. Some of what happened involved open secrets, such as her parents “wine time.” Some events happened but were never talked about or acknowledged, such as her drunken father sexually abusing her sisters and her mother’s protection of Mariel by sharing a bed with her. Some truths were never discussed, such as where in his house Grandfather Hemingway committed suicide, but the place of  his suicide was keenly felt by Mariel.

Mariel struggles, and we travel that path with her. She struggles with her own depression. She struggles with being trying to be a different parent to her two children, and she struggles to keep healthy and laugh. Through her life’s love, Bobby Williams, she learns to laugh and enjoy pursuits she missed in her “wine time'” family.

Mariel has learned to play a bad hand well ( also the title of a book by Mark Katz 1997). She’s used her contact with the outdoors and nature to learn about from her childhood and help others. She turned that family harvest of lemons into lemonade. “Running from Crazy” reveals how she does it. There are lessons for all of us in this movie, and it provides a way to begin conversations most of us need to have with our families, conversations that can help us heal us and change our lives.