How my brother survived so long out on the street eludes me still. Much of it, I’m sure, had to do with his own strengths. Since adolescence, Tom had been deeply concerned with how to live, how to do right by others, how to be. He was quick to defend the weak, to tell you to stop being a jerk, to point out how you were being unfair. In illness, this solidified into a rigid and high-minded moral code to which he adhered strictly, and which seemed to be part of how he avoided encounters with people who could do him real harm.
It was not that he blended in. Aside from his odd demeanor, he carried a large backpack full of rocks—ordinary rocks, rocks that appealed to him, rocks he picked up and examined while walking the Coastal Trail. And for a while he wore a bright yellow fisherman’s raincoat that Dad had given him. I see it flashing like a semaphore through the summer of 2007. It pops up in his court records from that time: large yellow rain jacket; WMA w/ yellow rain jacket.
That summer his arrests were frequent, the charges diverse. He was picked up for having failed to complete, or even start, eighty-five hours of community work service required as part of a sentence for a previous charge. The work service was converted to jail time and Tom spent a couple of weeks locked up. The next arrest came after a man stepped out of his office to find Tom sitting behind the wheel of his parked Toyota. When the police arrived, Tom ducked down and then ran from the car. When caught and questioned, he said he had thought the car was for sale. This time, his case was processed through the mental health court, but he declined the outpatient treatment option and instead spent more weeks in jail.
The greater shock came when Tom appeared in the Anchorage Daily News, in a column titled “Mr. Rain Jacket.” The columnist, Matt Zencey, described encountering Tom in his downtown neighborhood. He had noticed how oddly Tom walked along, with the hood of his bright raincoat pulled up around his face on a warm, sunny day, and then later passed him near Elderberry Park and, deciding to feel out the situation, tried to strike up a conversation. Tom didn’t respond, didn’t make any sign that he heard him, but he did stop walking and rested against a nearby rock. Zencey, thinking that maybe Tom didn’t speak much English, asked if he was a visitor. Tom stared blankly at first but then said, “There are diamonds in that rock there. People are hiding in the bushes, waiting to get them.”
Zencey’s response: “O-KAY. Time to extricate myself from this conversation.”
It was the belittling tone that set me off, and that it was followed so quickly by an instinct to get far away. I knew all the ways people could react to delusional statements. I had seen all the faces and heard all the inflections Mom could elicit, from earnest confusion to blatant contempt. But somehow I was not prepared.
Zencey did take a moment to wonder if Tom was okay, specifically if there were medications he should be taking. But then he moved on to his main point: Although Tom seemed “harmless enough,” he couldn’t help thinking of another man who had been in the news a few years before, a “mentally ill guy who sliced up kids.” He concluded that he would be keeping an eye on Tom.
The thing about being homeless and solitary and schizophrenic—there were many things, of course—but the one I hadn’t thought of at first was that, in that state, Tom had nothing to shield him from everybody else.
I wrote an angry letter, an irate letter, to Zencey in response to his column. Dad called him directly but was more diplomatic, stressing how Tom’s resistance made it difficult for us to help him. Who knows what Zencey thought of it all by the end. For my part, I remained deeply shaken. Some confidence I had had, false as it was, had faltered. I could no longer brush aside my worries, my what-ifs. I understood, that summer, that the world would be eager to think of Tom not as sick but as bad.
And beneath that, pushed down: If Tom were to do something—something that had once been the kind of thing he would never do. If one day I might learn that Tom had harmed someone, intentionally or not. I felt that the world was asking me something, something serious and necessary, and I had no idea how to answer.
This was where, for a while, the story became entirely about fear.
This was where the story looped back, many years, to a boy I had known in high school. Terrance, a grade above me, a champion wrestler, loved by the wrestling team, close with my friends Sean and Kevin. He was albino, African American, tall and gregarious, and it was rumored that he had been held back in fifth grade. You would see him in the halls, joking around, grinning in the sunglasses he wore indoors to protect his fragile pink eyes. I had met him one day when he meandered up to my locker and playfully told me he was taking a poll, and would I be willing to participate? He was trying to identify what percentage of girls were bitches, he explained, and to determine if I was a bitch, he had one question: Could he have my phone number? I stared at him, more fascinated than appalled—took in the varsity jacket, the acne, the surprising white of his eyelashes when he pulled off his shades. He was sort of bobbing, graceful, all fluid energy. No, I said, and never talked to him again.
It would be another decade before Sean told me more about Terrance. Told me he was intelligent, sensitive, far more so than people gave him credit for. Told me that he, like Sean, had bipolar disorder so severe that he sometimes had psychotic episodes. That some doctors even believed Terrance had schizophrenia. Sean’s episodes, by then, were in the past, his illness under control. We were looking back on what had happened when we were seniors, when Terrance was a year out of high school.
There is no real way to introduce it. Terrance took his ten-year-old brother hostage at gunpoint on an overpass above an Anchorage boulevard. He had a revolver cocked and pointed at the child. He was in a standoff with the police, ranting about Martians to a negotiator while snipers trained their rifles on him. A woman in a nearby home, watching the scene unfold, grabbed her camcorder and started filming. Terrance did not surrender.
When the police went to Terrance’s home, they found his mother and eight-year-old sister dead in the bathroom.
This was where the story became incoherent.
And the woman with the camcorder—she called the evening news shows and sold them copies of her tape. A Current Affair aired it as well. And I, at eighteen, saw the fuzzy black-and-white glow of cheap footage on high zoom—a white head beside a smaller, darker head. I heard the sharp snap of the gunshot. I saw the pale blob that was Terrance jerk quickly and slump, falling softly sideways. And the woman said, “Oh my God, they just blew his head off.”
I tell you all of this because it taught me some things. For weeks, my high school was in a furor over why Terrance had killed his family members. The papers reported that he came from poverty, that a genetic condition was slowly blinding him, that he had struggled with domestic problems. That his wrestling coaches had believed he had overcome those challenges. That he had recently been hospitalized for mental health reasons. That he had said, on the overpass, that his little brother was “an alien from another planet.” One reporter wrote, “You can never see to the bottom of a man’s soul.”
To me it didn’t seem to have much to do with Terrance’s soul. Psychosis—my mother’s, at least—was as familiar to me as the bed I slept in. When I heard the bit about the alien, I guessed that Terrance had had a psychotic break. That he hadn’t grasped that he was killing his own kin, or even humans, for that matter. What made less sense to me was the part about how it was that I watched him die.
Many years later, I would learn of research showing that delusions are shaped in part by local culture, and that Americans with psychosis are more likely to have violence-themed hallucinations. I would learn, too, that Terrance himself had been shaped by violence. That he had once been shot in a drive-by, and that the handgun he carried that day was believed to belong to his older brother. But I knew none of this at the time. I knew only that Terrance’s death seeped into me, stayed with me, became like an unshakable fact—an object lesson. That the lesson was indecipherable only made it more powerful.
In September, Tom was arrested again. This time, a young woman called the police saying that a man had walked into her house, stood in the living room as she told him to leave, and then lingered outside, peering into the windows. He was picked up and charged with disorderly conduct. Specifically, peeping. “How is that even the actual name of it?” I demanded to my sister Adrienne when I later read the official report. She grimaced, shaking off the willies.
What was the right side of things? How do you know a person? What I mean is that something had to come undone, had to be torn away, to make room for the possibility of violence or predation in Tom. And I didn’t know exactly what that something was or whether it had been lost or if it could be taken from him at all.
Did it matter that randomly, at a soccer practice, Sean’s friend Matt happened to hear the young woman who had called the police talking about what had happened? She spoke of a frightening incident with a stranger who stepped into her house early one morning while she was still in her nightclothes. She said that ever since that day she had been waking at night in terror, had been afraid to be home alone. But Matt recognized her description of the man—that yellow raincoat—and asked his name. And he said, “Oh, no, no! It’s not like that!” He explained that he knew Tom, describing what he could of his illness—his delusions, his belief that young women were being kidnapped, his determination to rescue them, his desire not to hurt but to help.
I was glad that Matt could speak with confidence about Tom’s good intentions. His assessment must have been influenced by Sean, who knew Tom’s illness as intimately as anyone. But it was still disconcerting that the delusion centered so strongly on young women, however altruistically. And I felt like a cliché—the sister avowing that her brother was not capable of harming another person. I would think of that young woman, off and on, for a long time. I would think about how, sometime later, she spoke to Matt again and told him that since the time of their conversation, her panic had vanished, faded away. I would think of her and I would feel relief and nausea, all at once.
I was bolstered when I read the other letters written in response to the “Mr. Rain Jacket” column, the ones that were printed. The deputy chief of police wrote that the columnist could have helped Tom by calling the Anchorage Police Department and asking for a “welfare check.” He explained that an officer with Crisis Intervention Team training—one skilled at de-escalating tensions and offering support to mentally-unstable or ill individuals—would have assessed the situation and intervened if necessary. The chairwoman of the Alaska Mental Health Board defended Tom with research indicating that stress, substance abuse, and certain personality traits were much stronger contributors to violence than mental illness, and that only less-severe mental health problems were significantly associated with violent acts. She wrote of studies showing that the severely mentally ill were no more likely to be violent than the rest of us. The medical director of Anchorage Community Mental Health Services wrote that “the vast majority” of people with mental illness were “neither violent nor dangerous,” and that they were far more likely to be victims of violence than perpetrators. This was the part that unnerved me. Seven times more likely, I read from another source around that time.
I can only infer how these events affected Tom, but it seems that something shifted that summer, something that would never really be undone. After Tom was ordered not to go within five hundred feet of the young woman’s house—and this, I imagine, would have been explained to him in no uncertain terms—he established a rule for himself that he would no longer touch women. Three years later, I would ask him if I could have a hug and he would say, “No. No hugging.” A year after that he would say the same to Adrienne, and when she asked why, she would see he was still confused about what exactly had gone wrong with the young woman, still feeling it was safer to stick to his rule than to risk another incident.
Over time it became apparent, as well, that he responded in equally categorical terms to Dad’s letter barring him from the house. Soon Dad would be inviting Tom over and encouraging him to stay longer, and Tom would be the one to turn away, to decide it was time to leave, as if some great commandment had proclaimed that he could never again spend a night at his former home. What drove his thinking seemed a blend of schizophrenic rigidity and a burgeoning paranoia, a symptom that was slowly becoming central to his experience of the illness.
At the time, though, none of this registered with us. We didn’t have enough information, couldn’t see it yet. Nor could we know what happened while Tom was in jail for that peeping charge. Going through his court records after he died, I found something—something that didn’t seem to fit anywhere until it felt like the crux of all that followed. While Tom was being held in custody and awaiting a hearing, things got bad for him somehow. What exactly took place, I don’t know. I would not have known anything happened at all were it not for a brief note on one otherwise uninteresting page. Most of them were complicated forms with a few boxes checked here and there, indicating, for instance, that on September 26, 2007, bail was set at $250 and the defendant was not present. But on one form, in a lined portion reserved for notes, there were two words, unexplained: suicide watch.
When I later went seeking an explanation for this, I found a statement in the Anchorage Daily News about a psychiatrist who had practiced at both API and the Department of Corrections: “Sperbeck . . . has seen that inmates suffering from severe mental illness will often be targeted by predators within the prison population who try to extort privileges, services and property from them.” Tom might, in other words, have been driven to harm himself. Or, as Sperbeck explained, such inmates were sometimes put in isolation at their own request, as a means of protection—though in the long run, this was “very harmful to them.”
After that, Tom did not get arrested again for a long time. He had clearly decided that jail was not where he wanted to be, and he must have gotten better at avoiding trouble. That left him on his own, alone on the street.
This essay is excerpted from Marin Sardy’s book The Edge of Every Day: Sketches of Schizophrenia (Pantheon), to be released on May 21.