A Note from Bill
When I was first diagnosed with manic depression in 1986, I did what many people do when they first encounter a difficult or life changing event. I went to the self-help section at Barnes and Noble.
I was surprised to find only a single book on the illness, the 1975 paperback Moodswing, which chronicled the introduction of lithium into America to treat the disorder. Although I had never heard of manic depression previously, nor met anyone who had it, my mother assured me that it was possible to recover from it based in large part on the fact that she had read that the playwright and director, Joshua Logan (“South Pacific,” “Mr. Roberts”) had manic depression, and had been able to continue working. But that’s all I was able to find out about the illness. This was before Patty Duke wrote her courageous account of her own struggles with manic depression, Call Me Anna, or Kay Jamison’s brilliant and moving chronicle of the lives of artistic geniuses who had the illness, Touched By Fire. There was nothing really available.
It is sort of hard to believe now, particularly because it seems impossible these days to turn on cable TV without running into some movie or biography about someone’s dramatic struggle with mental illness. But in those days, in the mid-1980’s, there were none.
As I began to get better, I sought out documentary films about people who had recovered, but the only ones I could find were about people who were very ill or psychotic. In part that’s because there is nothing more sensational than watching someone who is psychotic on film. It is exciting, and unpredictable. However, it tells you nothing about the nature of the illness, or what it is like to get sick and get better, or even that getting better is possible.
And so I did what I had done for nearly 20 years as a TV and radio documentary producer. I produced three one-hour radio programs over
a period of six years. The “Voices of an Illness” series has been hailed as the first to focus on what it was like to get sick — and get better — from serious mental illness (manic depression, schizophrenia and depression), from the perspective of the person with the illness. The schizophrenia show began with the words “I was walking across the campus at Yale in spring of my sophomore year, and I looked up at the sky and it shattered into a thousand pieces. I don’t know why I didn’t take that as a serious sign that there was something wrong with my head and I needed help.” At the end of the day, the programs received over 20 major broadcast awards, including a George Foster Peabody Award, TV and radio’s highest honor, and were featured in an article in Time magazine.
By 1995, I began thinking about the possibility that the series could somehow be translated to film. This was fueled, in part, by the success of the arrival of new, highly effective anti-depressants (Prozac was the first) and new “second-generation” medications for schizophrenia. These new drugs, unlike Thorazine, which had been the treatment of choice for schizophrenia since the 1950’s but was nothing more than a serious tranquilizer, were actually able to quell the symptoms of the thought disorder and more and more people were getting their lives back.
When we began thinking about how to shoot a film, it became clear that what had worked so well for radio and oral history would not work in a film documentary. That’s because while oral history works really well on radio, in film you want to “see” the action, not be told about it. So we began thinking about how we could actually follow people from the time they were sick, through getting better.
We were stunningly fortunate to have found Fountain House, which was only blocks away from our offices. A staff member suggested we think about it as a place where there were interesting people as well as a program that could provide a backdrop where their lives would intersect. We were even more fortunate that Fountain House agreed to let us shoot there, and gave us the one, most important thing that any filmmaker needs to make a film like this: Access. Not “Call me if you want to shoot next week” access, but “Feel free to just come and shoot anytime you want” access.
I lured my fiancé at the time (now my wife), June Peoples, away from a successful career as a newspaper city editor to work with me on the film. She explained how she knew nothing about making movies, but I convinced her that what I needed was someone who could help me get to know the hundreds of people at Fountain House and follow their interesting personal stories.
In the beginning we were naïve. We thought that if we shot for six weeks (and later six months) that somehow we could capture the curve of someone’s recovery from serious mental illness. We finally decided a year would be enough time, and budgeted for a camera crew to shoot 100 days over 12 months. In the end, it would take three years.
At the end of the first year of shooting, we realized the stories were just starting, but were beginning to run out of funding for a camera crew. So June and I kept filming, with June on sound and me on camera. We ended up shooting for two more years, from November 1996 through April 2000, and gathered more than 350 hours of material.
Veteran cameraman Mark Petersson, who shot Barbara Kopple’s Academy Award-winning documentary American Dream, was teamed with a young sound recordist, Tracey Barry, whose exceptional commitment and dedication to “getting the sound” allowed us to tell the story through our characters’ own words. We also hired Spiro C. “Spike” Lampros as editor, after witnessing the indescribably powerful and haunting quality of his previous work (“Compassion in Exile: the Story of the 14th Dalai Lama,” which was nominated for an Emmy, and “The Shot Heard Around the World.”) Later, we were fortunate to gain the assistance of one of the truly great cinéma vérité
filmmakers, Charlotte Zwerin (“Salesman,” “Gimme Shelter”) who served as story editor, working with talented editor Bernadine Colish to cut the film from two-and-a-half hours to a final length of 83 minutes.
This film is the result of all of our efforts.
Back in the 1980s, for about a year, I commuted from Dutchess County to work for the Associated Press in Manhattan. I remember the day that I realized I couldn’t do it any more. It wasn’t the four hours a day on the train that did me in. It was the homeless man who slept stretched out across the entrance to Grand Central Station at Madison Avenue and 44th Street.
I realized one morning that I’d stopped seeing him.
I used to look to make sure he was breathing, at least. I’d think about the temperature, whether it was too cold to be sleeping outside. Sometimes, I’d think about tucking a dollar in his pocket, although to be honest, I never did.
But one morning, I realized that I was stepping over his legs without a thought. Right along with thousands of other people.
I blamed New York. This city is stealing my soul, I thought. If I go on like this, there will be nothing left of me. And, two weeks later, I accepted a newspaper job upstate.
Fast forward to 1996, and a place called Fountain House. I was living in New York with my fiancé, Bill Lichtenstein, and backward-commuting to work upstate. One day, Bill called me at work to say that he’d just received a substantial grant to make a film about people with schizophrenia. Did I think I could go over to this place on West 47th Street and find some people with interesting stories?
At that point I’d neither visited nor researched Fountain House. I’d imagined it, though. “Psychiatric rehabilitation center,” we’ve all imagined that, right? Grey or green or pale pink walls. Scratched linoleum floors. Vinyl-covered furniture with cigarette burns. And the people: vacant-eyed, shaky people, sitting for hours in front of the television looking up only to swallow their medication or perhaps shuffle along to a crafts class.
Well, check your preconceptions in the front lobby (which looks exactly like the reservation desk at an exclusive resort hotel). The place is gorgeous. Crystal chandeliers. Persian rugs, real ones. Mahogany desks. The décor is more Ethan Allen than institution.
And the people are amazing. To begin, it is almost impossible to tell the staff from the people with mental illnesses, and the staff actually brags about that fact. And the people who are recovering there are “members,” not “patients,” because language is important, and this is their clubhouse, and they have as much say in its operation as anyone else. There are no closed-door conferences to talk about patients behind their back. In fact, there are very few closed doors of any kind. Staff and members also brag that at one time, you had to walk through the director’s office to get to the bathroom.
People who come to this place are partners in their own progress. They may be resistant at first, from fear or anger or confusion, but there’s a subtle and lovely compulsion that makes progress nearly inevitable. “If a person can’t or doesn’t want to wait on tables, we’ll have them peel potatoes,” the kitchen director told me, early on. “If they won’t do that, we have them fold napkins. If that’s too much for them, they can sit and talk to me while I work. Eventually, they ask if they can help. It’s human nature to want to be a part of what’s going on around you.
“You have to realize that for some people, just getting dressed and coming here in the morning is a really big deal.”
The operating premise for a clubhouse like Fountain House follows a core belief in the whole-ness of an individual, the humanity inherent in each person. No matter how ill or confused, hostile or delusional, behind all the symptoms the clubhouse ethos sees a well person, someone looking for the same things we all need: a home, a job, some friends. And maybe a hot meal once a day.
Relationships formed through this therapy can be deep and lasting, and often transcend the place. Staff and members sometimes see each other on their “off hours” at night and on weekends. It’s a community, egalitarian and inter-dependent.
It was a community strong and elastic enough to make room for a couple of filmmakers when we started showing up every day with a camera and a microphone. And we weren’t just tolerated: these people, struggling with serious thought disorders and mood disorders, enfolded us. They remembered my name, and my birthday. They asked about my sick Mom, and about our wedding plans. I ate with them, went on outings with them and shared my life with them as they shared theirs with me.
I had no idea how unusual an experience this was. Because sadly, this is not the way people relate to each other elsewhere in the mental health system. Two years into our filming, I learned about that.
We’d been following Phil around Fountain House for months. We knew him to be a handful — lively, loud and profane. I once asked his caseworker, a sweet older lady from Alabama, about Phil’s diagnosis. Was he manic-depressive? Schizophrenic? Did he have an obsessive-compulsive disorder?
“Honey,” Odie drawled, “Phil’s got it ALL.”
We also knew Phil as a person who carried some responsibility at Fountain House. He worked in the kitchen/dining room, preparing food and waiting on tables at lunchtime. And his jokes made us laugh. One day, we arrived to learn that Phil had become louder and a little more confused than usual, and was staying temporarily on a psychiatric ward at a fine New York hospital, respected worldwide for its research and treatment of serious mental illness. We knew the director, and got permission to visit Phil and bring our camera.
I sort of suspected the psychiatric ward would look different from Fountain House, more institutional. I expected the locked doors and the antiseptic décor. I didn’t expect that they’d treat my friend Phil like half a person. And I really didn’t expect that at lunchtime, we’d be escorted to a glass-enclosed cubicle to lunch with the staff, while the patients were fed at a table outside. The nurses and psychiatric aides were astonished and clearly a little appalled when Bill and I excused ourselves and went back outside to eat with Phil and the other patients.
That day, all of the patients talked to us. Phil was happy to be back on camera. Other patients asked if they could be, too.
Phil’s psychiatrist, on the other hand, ducked whenever we pointed the camera at her. We eventually cut the whole scene, in part because audiences were confused by her disembodied voice off-camera. And his social worker carried on a completely bizarre discussion about whether Phil had chalked up enough brownie points to allow him to go to the dining hall with an escort. “Are you going to behave now, Phil? Keep taking your medication and sleeping through the night?” he asked, in exactly the same tone I use with my cranky three-year-old.
I was so upset after that visit that I had dreams about breaking Phil out of the hospital. I asked everybody I knew who worked in mental health: Why do they talk to people like that? Does treating a person like a child improve their prognosis? And what about all the walls and doors and why, please, why won’t the staff eat with the patients?
Why, that’s the way it’s done everywhere, they told me, a little amused at my naiveté. Didn’t you know?
And suddenly, I did know. Fountain House, and its special therapeutic mix of respect and responsibility, was an anomaly. No wonder so many people with mental illness around the country are terrified to seek treatment.
Making this film was a life-altering experience. I will never again look at someone with a disability, any disability, as if he or she is a lesser person. Or, for that matter, even different. They are just exactly as complex or simple-minded, warm or irritating, brave or whiny, as am I.
And I learned that mental illness is a great leveler. Black or white, deaf or hearing, rich or poor: schizophrenia, depression and manic depression don’t discriminate. What’s the biblical saying? “No Respecter of Persons?” That applies. You can have an Ivy League degree or two and parents with homes on three continents, you can be well-read and well-traveled, you can be in your third year at Julliard … and you can still find yourself homeless and hungry, on the street, talking to the voices in your head.
Perhaps the most profound experience for me has been traveling with the film, seeing it through the eyes of a new audience every few weeks. The response has been the same, from Paris to Cleveland, Atlanta to Vancouver. People with no experience of mental illness find the stories heart-warming, tragic and inspiring all at once, and say it changes the way they see these disorders. Family members with a sick relative want to know how to find a place like Fountain House in their town. Psychiatrists and social workers say they’re moved to reconsider the way they relate to their own patients.
This is important, useful feedback because it means West 47th Street is having exactly the impact we hoped it would. It means that we’re helping to break down barriers that keep people apart.
But for me, all of that pales in comparison somehow to the people who come up to us at the end of every screening. They hang back until everybody else has left the room.
“I have a mental illness,” they whisper. “I know what it’s like.
“Thank you for telling my story.”
—June Peoples, Director