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January 24, 2018

Book Notes - Sandra Allen "A Kind of Mirraculas Paradise"

A Kind of Mirraculas Paradise

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Previous contributors include Bret Easton Ellis, Kate Christensen, Lauren Groff, T.C. Boyle, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Jesmyn Ward, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

Sandra Allen's affecting A Kind of Mirraculas Paradise vividly examines the life of her schizophrenic uncle through his own words and the people around him.

Publishers Weekly wrote of the book:

"Insightful... Allen offers readers an incredible glimpse into the life of a person battling with schizophrenia."

In her own words, here is Sandra Allen's Book Notes music playlist for her book A Kind of Mirraculas Paradise:

My first book, which publishes 1/23/2018 from Scribner, is called A Kind of Mirraculas Paradise: A True Story about Schizophrenia. It's about my uncle Bob. It's based on his life story, which he typed on his typewriter and mailed me back in 2009. I didn't know him well before then; for longer than I'd been alive he'd lived in a little shack in the desert in northern California. Bob had written his life story on about sixty pages in all capital letters. It was punctuated mostly with colons and very misspelled. He described it as being "a true story" about a boy coming of age in Berkeley in the sixties and seventies who was "unable to identify with reality" and therefore "labeled a psychotic paranoid schizophrenic for the rest of his life."

I'd only been to his smoky little house once. I'd stopped by in college, road tripping with a couple of friends. He slept in the living room by his chair and by the TV, which he rarely turned off. His house's small bedroom was where he kept his musical equipment — his guitars, his keys, his amps. Back in the nineties, when I was a kid, he'd mail us cassette tapes of music he'd recorded or play new songs into our answering machine. I never knew much about him or his musical career, though, until he mailed me his life story. In fact it's fair to say I knew basically nothing about Bob before then. Listening to music he loved was a big part of how I stayed connected to him through the eight years I've now spent writing this book.

"Voodoo Child (Slight Return)" - Jimi Hendrix

In his autobiography, Bob described the first time he heard a Hendrix song: He was a teenager, at his friend's house, tripping on acid, and "Voodoo Child" came on the radio. Those first few licks were all it took, from then on Hendrix wasn't just my uncle's favorite musician, he was his "god." Bob was also a guitarist and Jimi inspired him greatly, as did all the other bands he saw growing up in Berkeley in the sixties. Tuesdays he'd cut Berkeley High and go get the free posters they passed out for the shows that happened on the weekends over at Provo Park. He saw so many bands. He saw Hendrix live at the Berkeley Community Theater in 1970, a couple months before the artist's death. There was no single musician I listened to more while writing this book. Hendrix is one of the most powerful ghosts, I think, who lurks about in the world of the story.

"Summertime" - Janis Joplin

The phrase "mirraculas paradise" in the book's is a quote from Bob's manuscript. It refers to the feeling of arriving at the Minnesota cottage his family returned to each summer. These were the happiest times of his life, times he always yearned for, full of innocence and sunshine and long days out on the water. This section of the book has often made me think of Janis Joplin's cover of "Summertime." I include this track as well because in the book I discuss the relationship between my uncle's original manuscript and my presentation of his story — one that's my own but that adheres to his facts. Rather than call it a "translation," I call it "a cover, as in music," in part because Bob was a musician. Janis' interpretation of "Summertime" is to me an excellent example of a cover that departs from the original significantly and yet is certainly the same song.

"All the Madmen" - David Bowie

While popular artworks that speak about psychiatric distress and treatment are more common today, there has long been a cultural taboo against discussing these topics directly. David Bowie was a great exception. He was familiar both with madness and with the perils of psychiatric mistreatment, both because of his own and his brother's experiences. In this song, he goes so far as to side with the mad and against society, a choice that certainly inspired me. Bowie and my uncle Bob coincidentally shared a birthday (as did Elvis, whom Bob mentioned in his manuscript he didn't much care for).

"All Along the Watchtower" - Jimi Hendrix

Bob's world was shattered when, according to him, he was one day driven to a mental hospital, locked in a cell and injected with antipsychotic medications. He stayed there for an unknown amount of time. After he was moved to a room with a bed, and lying there, he imagined back to when he saw his idol Hendrix live not long before. Staring at the hospital ceiling, Bob sang "There's got to be some way out of here." He repeated it, then sang the whole song to the ceiling, and then the whole set from that concert, best he can remember. It's a song with imagery of surveillance that fits well, I think in a portrait of a psychiatric incarceration.

"First Breath After Coma" - Explosions in the Sky

Bob's first psychiatric hospitalization went from bad to worse when he contracted German Measles and eventually fell into a coma. (While I couldn't confirm this, I did encounter some evidence that he'd received electroshock or ECT. It's possible this is what caused his coma.) At this point in his story there is a gap — and then an awakening. I listened to a lot of Explosions in the Sky while writing this book, and often when writing the sequence where Bob awakened in the hospital, I listened to this song.

"Dreams" - Fleetwood Mac

Throughout his late teens and into his twenties Bob had various adventures and jobs — and further psychiatric hospitalizations. He eventually took a welding course and afterwards moved with a friend to Morgan City, Louisiana to weld for a tugboat operation there. He and his friend drove together down California, across the Southwest and into Texas. Bob was behind the wheel as they finally crossed the state line into Louisiana, and as he did, "Dreams" played on the radio.

"Born on the Bayou" - Creedence Clearwater Revival

Down in the Louisiana, the job at the tugboat operation didn't turn out as expected. Bob became a street preacher. He'd walk around with a guitar strapped to his back, sing to people, sometimes wander country roads. CCR was another of the bands Bob saw as a teenager back in Berkeley down at Provo Park. I've often returned to them when working on this chapter, which is my favorite in the book.

"Woodstock" - Joni Mitchell

This book challenged me to recreate a historical time and place I didn't live through — Berkeley in the sixties and seventies. It's nonetheless a time and place that hung heavily in the air during my Bay Area childhood in the eighties and nineties. There is no artist who shaped my understanding of that period (and so much else) more than Joni. I always think of Bob in his street preacher phase when she opens: "I came upon a child of God / he was walking along the road."

"The Gambler" - Kenny Rogers

Bob stayed many times at a psychiatric hospital in the East Bay. During one stay, he befriended a man who introduced himself as Kenny Rogers. He and Bob played together a few times, eventually putting on a concert for friends and family. Kenny then left the hospital eventually to go back on the road, apparently asking Bob's psychiatrist if Bob could leave the hospital and come with him (his psychiatrist said no). This sequence was presented in my book faithfully to how Bob had described it, as was everything else Bob described. It's one of many stories that I questioned in terms of its being true. I tried many times to contact Kenny Rogers' people to ask whether he'd stayed in a hospital in the East Bay in the mid-seventies. I never heard back, but someday hope to. Bob described how when he and Kenny first met, Kenny took out his guitar and played "The Gambler." Bob remarked that it's one of the best songs he'd ever heard.

"Tobacco Road" - War

After many hard years, Bob finally decided to give up on trying to hold down a job and go on disability payments. When he did, his doctor said to him something he didn't understand, which was, "You're on tobacco road now!" The song "Tobacco Road" been recorded by many artists, including another band Bob talks about in his book, War. Bob described being in two bands. The first was called Choice of Colors. Working at a gas station in his twenties, he befriended a group of teenagers and they started a band called The Third Rail. It was a good period in his life. He had friends; he had a girl. They eventually split up over a dispute: there is an opportunity to open for War at the Concord Pavilion. Bob felt that they as a group aren't ready for an opportunity, or a venue, that big. He quit the band and stopped seeing those guys.

"Shine on You Crazy Diamond" - Pink Floyd

Bob moved up north to his shack in the desert in about 1980. He then lived there as a self-described "hermit" for decades. At this point, as I describe in my book, his typewritten story of his life moved through time much more quickly, perhaps because much less happened. Through the eighties and nineties and into the aughts he nonetheless took time occasionally to lament the state of music. He felt that music got worse throughout his life. One of the few bands he mentioned liking was Pink Floyd. The band's frontman for their debut record, Syd Barrett, is popularly speculated to have had schizophrenia. The band's more famous albums were recorded after Barrett's departure. Wish You Were Here, this track especially, lamented Barrett's loss to madness (its title shares his initials). "Wish you were here," was something I thought many times about my uncle, who died in 2014, less than a year before I finally managed to find a publisher for my project about him. I later read a story about this song: Syd Barrett showed up the day his former bandmates were recording it. He'd gained so much weight and shaved his hair and eyebrows, rendering him unrecognizable. His former bandmates, busily engaged with their artistic concept of his madness, didn't know it was him, even after they did notice him. It's a story I find myself thinking about, because there's a strong temptation I think to become enamored with some kind of romance about madness and lose sight of real people.

"We Are the Champions" - Queen

There are a few famous songs that my uncle Bob claimed to have authored; this was one. Early in his story, he described a night when he was a teenager. His dad had a party for his graduating students and he met a guy who was in the music business. Bob had played him a couple of songs on his keyboard and guitar, and the guy had seemed really impressed. When this hit by Queen was on the radio a while later, Bob really couldn't believe it.

"Room Full of Mirrors" - Jimi Hendrix

As I tell the story of Bob's life faithfully to the account he wrote, I also thread in the memories that those who knew him had, including his friends from back when he was a teenager in Berkeley. Many people who knew Bob expressed their theories as to whatever had caused was wrong with him. Many blamed his parents' divorce; pointed blamed his use of drugs like LSD; some blamed the hospitals he'd stayed at. In my book I examined those and other ideas — brain chemistry, genetics. One friend of Bob's had recalled for example that Bob had taken LSD and been standing between two mirrors facing each other, and that he'd gotten "stuck" in there; that was his explanation for what happened to Bob. I asked everyone I could think of about this theory and while no one else recalled anything like this, I noticed, and others noticed, that there was a famous Hendrix song with a very similar title.

"True Love Will Find You in the End" - Daniel Johnston

It was announced this fall that Daniel Johnston's most recent tour was his last. Johnston is perhaps the most famous recent example of a performing musician whose severe mental illness diagnosis was publicly known and even part of his appeal. This is one of Johnston's best known and best loved songs, and it's certainly one of my favorites of his. It's simple and powerful and when I listen to it I cannot help but feel hope. That's the note I'd like to end on.

Sandra Allen and A Kind of Mirraculas Paradise links:

the author's website
the book's website

Booklist review
Kirkus review
Publishers Weekly review
The Rumpus review

also at Largehearted Boy:

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