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The Ghost Garden by Susan Doherty

Reviewed by Ian Thomas Shaw

Susan Doherty's The Ghost Garden is a tour de force. Not simply because it reaches into the lives of the most marginalized of our society, but also for the deep reflection that she brings to the fundamental question of how we as human beings should treat those whose lives are consumed by schizophrenia and other mental illnesses.

The story revolves around the forty-year struggle of Caroline Evans (a fictive name but a very real person) whom Doherty first knew when they were both children, and with whom Doherty reconnects when she decides to volunteer for the Douglas Institute, Montreal's premier institution for mental illness. Born to a highly respected doctor and his loving wife. Caroline grows up happily with her nine siblings. Her future seems promising until the first symptoms of schizophrenia surface in high school and then become debilitating in her early twenties. At the behest of her sister, one of Doherty's elementary school friends, Doherty begins to extensively interview Caroline to write her story.

With Caroline's cooperation and support from her siblings, Doherty patches together the rising and falling tides of the woman's life, describing in disturbing detail the violence of her many verbal and sometimes physical relapses into extreme delusion. But there are also high points in Caroline's story: the love that she shows for her two sons, her devotion to shattered men, and the generosity that she shows toward her friends, some worse off than she is. Doherty becomes Caroline's voice, drawing the reader to this troubled human being, whose behaviour at times would have many of us cross the street to avoid her and at others, find ourselves drawn to her gregariousness and gentle kindness.

Schizophrenia is not monolithic. And in its various manifestations, it lives side by side with other mental illnesses. Although Caroline's story of paranoid schizophrenia is the backbone of the book, Doherty shares with us the stories of twenty other sufferers of mental illness whom she befriends and helps as a volunteer. These bring insights into how broad the spectrum is and how pervasive these afflictions are in our society.

Each and every one of Doherty's stories is beautifully told. I particularly enjoyed the story of Aleks, the keeper of the ghost garden. At fifty, he has struggled for decades with whether he is a man or a woman, something his strict Croatian mother could never understand or accept. Long past are the days when his youthful beauty attracted many lovers and street drugs provided temporary reprieve from the voices in his head. Obese and heavily medicated most of the time, his only wishes are to be loved by someone and accepted by his mother.

Yet, from his drug-induced stupor, he emerges to demonstrate a capacity to comprehend others, perhaps better than they understand themselves. Speaking of the people around him, he says, “I can see them but they pretend they can't see me. I am invisible to the world because people make a conscious choice not to go to the place that feels strange and poor and sick, and they close their eyes.” Later, when this lucidity passes, he tells Doherty of how he has passed the night with the actress Jennifer Love Hewitt, a woman, for whom despite his own gender confusion, he professes profound love. When asked where the encounter took place, he looks into Doherty's eyes and replies, “Susie, I met her in the Ghost Garden. It is where I meet all the souls of the people I love.” Of this encounter, Doherty writes, “So often we see the severely mentally ill as less than fully formed human beings, as ghosts of their “normal” selves. As ghosts, they can appear to be inanimate, unreachable, and frightening, but they like all of us tend an interior garden that is lushly alive.”

Caroline's and Aleks's stories and the many others in Doherty's compelling narrative uncover truths about those we so often disregard, and more importantly, truths about ourselves. Why is it that as a society we so easily dismiss the afflicted to the margins and turn away from them when their need for human connection is as real as for the rest of us? It is a testament to Doherty's skill as a writer that she is able to raise our awareness of how narrow the gap is between them and us, and this done without moralizing or imposing clinical coldness and distance. While there is no doubt that Doherty has arrived as an important Canadian author, perhaps now at the pinnacle of her career, this accomplishment is greatly overshadowed by the elevation of her humanity.

The Ghost Garden is published by Random House Canada and will be released this spring.

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