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by Miriam Toews
Arcade Publishing, 2001
Review by Marion Torchia on Dec 9th 2002

Swing Low

On May 13, 1993, Melvin Toews, a retired elementary school teacher in the Canadian province of Manitoba, threw himself in front of a train, putting an end to a life-long struggle with bipolar disorder. In the aftermath of his suicide his daughter Miriam took upon herself the task of elucidating his life and demonstrating its worth. In a first-person memoir written in the hospital during his last episode of illness, she has him tell the story he would have told if he had not been so habitually withdrawn and unable to open up about his emotional pain.

The fact that the memoir works, and that the man’s character comes alive suggests that, even though Melvin was silent at home much of the time, there were points of connection with his family, primarily with his extravert, life-loving wife Elvira, who kept things upbeat, but also with Miriam, his rebellious, creative daughter. Also, he was a saver and meticulous record keeper, and so he left many mementos. And during his final depression Miriam sat by his bedside and helped him write down his thoughts as he tried to reconnect with reality.

The miracle is that his life held together for so long and that he accomplished so many important, normal things. He had his first breakdown at the age of 17. Nevertheless, despite his psychiatrist’s warnings, he managed to get married, raise a family, teach school for more than forty years, and contribute steady service to church and community. And then it all unraveled.

The memoir puts out clues to the development of the fault lines in his personality. One likely source of trauma was the insensitivity of a mother whose own severe emotional problems had been ignored in their practical, non-introspective Mennonite community, and whose alcoholism was covered up for many years because of the social stigma it would have attracted. The fall-out was an intense sibling rivalry with the younger brother who “stole” his mother’s affections.

Melvin’s solution was to throw himself into his work. He found in teaching a vital role that allowed him to step outside himself, and it sustained him for many years. He was an exuberant teacher, respected and loved by generations of students. But his self-distrust and anxiety did not go away, and retirement deprived him of his protective cover. The memoir is an indictment of a culture that failed both generations by encouraging the papering over of emotional distress. 

A secondary theme is a complaint against a health care system that treated serious mental illness superficially over many years. Melvin visited his psychiatrist regularly, but apparently received only medicines and routine monitoring. In retrospect, Miriam wishes he could have been encouraged to confront his problems more intensively. The small-town general hospital was totally unequipped to handle serious psychiatric illness.

Swing Low is a moving story. It is also part of a growing literature of first-person accounts of mental illness. Such memoirs are valuable because they force us to imagine what it would feel like to suffer from such a disorder. Making this effort of the imagination helps break down the illusory distinction between “us and them,” the so-called normal and the mentally ill. 

 

© 2002 Marion Torchia

 

Marion Torchia earned a masters degree in applied and professional ethics from the University of Maryland in Baltimore. She has held positions in several Washington DC health and behavioral health associations. She is interested in the moral dimensions of our attitudes towards mental illness and addiction.