[BOOK CLUB] Sandra Allen Investigates a History of Mental Illness

Julia Ingalls, Ledger Columnist

Although she lives in The Catskills, A Kind of Mirraculas Paradise author and California native Sandra Allen is looking forward to returning to Skylight Books on February 7th.

Admittedly, said Allen, part of the draw is the town’s tacos, but she is more enthusiastic to discuss the thornier issues she raises in her debut book. The nonfiction work delves into the story of her schizophrenic Uncle Bob to explore not only the history of the Bay Area in the 1960s and 1970s, but the conception and treatment of mental illness within the country as a whole.

“It was an exciting world to enter,” Allen explains about 1960s Berkeley, describing how her Uncle Bob was “a teenager walking down Telegraph Avenue in the middle of all it it, getting caught up in the bloody Thursday riots and watching Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix at the Berkeley Community Theatre.”

Allen worked on A Kind of Mirraculas Paradise for about eight years before it was complete. The work began when she unexpectedly received a 60-page typewritten autobiography from her uncle in the mail, which prompted her to investigate both his life and his illness. It was a process that made her realize how little most people know or think they know about schizophrenia. “I spent a lot of years trying to understand this topic area,” she says.

Sandra Allen

Both Allen’s University of Iowa creative nonfiction MFA and her experience as a features editor at Buzzfeed helped her create the interweaving structure of the book, which features excerpts from her Uncle Bob’s original, often misspelled manuscript paired with her own research and reportage. “The book relies heavily on things I learned in both worlds. How do you write about a topic that is daunting and confusing in a way that brings people in?”

The result is an illuminating story of grappling with mental illness at a time when many Californians were themselves experimenting with the boundaries of consciousness. However, the book is also a revealing investigation into the state of contemporary psychiatric care, a subject Allen is looking forward to tackling at Skylight Books with moderator Amanda Chicago Lewis.

“The creation of psychiatric knowledge is heavily influenced by pharmaceutical money,” Allen says. “I’m devoted to raising knowledge around a topic that maybe doesn’t get a very accurate treatment in the mainstream press generally.”

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