Christians who have experienced great trauma and loss are all too familiar with the tropes of well-meant consolation from friends and family—passages of Scripture recited, cliché Christian phrases inside a Dayspring card along with a copy of C.S. Lewis’ A Grief Observed. Rational explanations for death are juxtaposed to the actual pain of death’s sting. God’s people may reproach death, goading, “Where, O death, is your victory?”, but the curse of sin still tarnishes the living. Before the grave takes our bones and returns us to the dust, the corruption of this penultimate world stings our bodies and brains. While the church is able to comfort the mourning with the hope of the resurrection after death, she is less equipped to support those on whom the curse is inflicted in the form of mental illness.
When mental illness is revealed in adulthood, it transforms a person into a stranger to their family and friends. For parents, this transition can be more grievous than death—it isolates not only the suffering individual, but their family. Because people with mental illnesses are always unique cases (despite symptomatic categories) gaining community support and discovering beneficial resources and information is challenging. In her book Broken Pieces, Simonetta Carr tells the story of her son’s diagnosis with schizophrenia, the struggles she and her family faced as a result within their home, community, and the legal system, and her hope in Christ that fueled her love for her son amid his illness. The first part of the book tells the story of a mother loving her son with schizophrenia; the second part is a compilation of the practical, legal, spiritual, and otherwise parental insight she gathered along the way. It is a sort of handbook for the parents of a child diagnosed with a mental illness, offering a wealth of information from a well-informed, uniquely Christian perspective while giving the reader an introduction to mental illness in twenty-first century North America.
It’s important to note that the focus of the narrative is on the mother and her personal, spiritual, and familiar learning experiences. The author states in the introduction that although her husband was just as involved in their son’s life, he is largely absent in her construction of the narrative, expanding the story to include her pastor’s care, her son’s friends and lifestyle choices, and the contribution of other forces external to their situation. Because the story is told in the present tense, the reader is placed in the middle of the family’s turmoil, so that the author’s retrospective input and the mother’s momentary thoughts are blurred, leaving the reader to figure out when we’re hearing from Carr the author or Simonetta the mother. Often, it appears that she is reflecting on a situation and inserts knowledge she has come to acquire since an event has taken place, but these interjections are placed within the mother’s thought-process in the narrative. For example, she frequently asks rhetorical questions or offers an anecdote or a bit of information on certain drugs or theological positions. In these instances, it is unclear whether these are pieces of information she was considering at the time, or the author later adding information to make sense of a situation.
Christians outside of the Reformed tradition may take issue with Carr’s theological perspective, but detailed examples in part two provide some helpful insight. For example, when she discovers that her son is smoking marijuana, she immediately informs her pastor; as a result, the church elders decide “to ban him from the Lord’s Table in order to impress on him the seriousness of his offense” until he admits that it is a sin. Her pastor suffers alongside the Carr family, praying for them, and bearing their burdens through pastoral care to the best of his ability, and she is comforted by her brothers and sisters in the church, as well. One of the book’s most provocative theological conversations is from her friend Alex who refers to Romans 8 to describe God’s immeasurable grace. Brenden and Tim, two seminary students, further remind Simonetta of “Christ’s relentless love” for both her and her son. Because the reader is emotionally and experientially distanced from the narrative, it is easy to cringe at some of the less-inspiring moments—no parent or church is perfect, and Carr is refreshingly honest about her and others’ shortcomings. But we must recognize that Carr is placing the reader in the middle of her learning process—she’s describing her thoughts and emotions as best as she could recall them, and being frank about the kinds of decisions that were made to benefit her son.
Ultimately, the story leaves the reader questioning whose pieces are broken—Jonathan’s or his mother’s? On the one hand, Jonathan is broken by social standards; his condition alienates him from being able to participate in the workplace, in church, and in his family without serious challenges. He is broken by psychological standards in that his mind deviates from the typical performance of non-schizophrenic adults. His mother is also broken. She deconstructs her memories, theology, parenting, and ultimately, her identity in Christ to make sense of the trauma she faces in loving her son with a mental illness. She encapsulates this sentiment in her reiteration of the words of medieval Jewish poet, Yehuda Ha-Levi, when she says, “’Tis a fearful thing to love what death can touch.” Broadly, Carr’s book shows how we are all broken pieces of a grand narrative—one in which God sent his own son to mend death and disease; to love what death has touched. Carr’s story is evidence that there is comfort in knowing that salvation is external to our diseased will’s ability to choose God. She gives thanks in knowing that God’s grace and salvation are unmerited gifts. To her reader, she offers her wisdom along with valuable, practical information for those who are learning to love their child amid mental illness.
Kimberly Olivar is a graduate of Concordia University, Irvine. She currently studies disabilities in literature at California State University, Fullerton.