Beloved Stranger:
Reflections on Mental Illness

by Mary Brust Heaney

First Page Publications, div. of Proctor Publications, 1996. ISBN 188279219X.
Reviewed by Duffie Bart
Posted on 02/23/2006

Nonfiction: Body Language

The engaging book Beloved Stranger: Reflections on Mental Illness by Mary Brust Heaney begins with a quote from Dr. William Menninger: "Mental health problems do not affect three or four out of every five persons, but one out of one." Volunteering for the Santa Barbara Mental Health Association reminds me of the truth of Dr. Menninger's assertion in that whenever I mention my volunteer activities, the person to whom I am speaking will tell me about a friend or relative who suffers from such an illness.

Heaney is not a therapist. Her wisdom comes from her observations of the family members and caregivers of the patients her husband of twenty-five years, a psychiatrist, has seen. She writes, "I have observed and listened, been impressed and been moved by their words and by their silences, in my psychiatrist-husband's waiting room, on the phone, in mental hospitals, and in the literature which graces our dining room table." Her slim volume is dedicated to "the families and friends of the mentally ill, who know the anguish and the bewilderment of a loved one becoming a stranger to them." On each page, she offers a brief vignette. I can feel the warmth and compassion underlying her words. At the top of each page is a well-known quote that succinctly captures the essence of the vignette below.

One of my favorites offers an important pointer toward improving communication with a mentally ill person: To look beyond the words one is hearing to the feelings being conveyed by the words. These are evident from the tone of voice, facial expression, body language and anything else one can observe. The quote at the top of this page reads: "I understand a fury in your words, but not your words" —Shakespeare

All too often, Heaney tells us, she has responded angrily to her husband's words that seemed illogical and irrational to her. The idea that the words we hear are less important than the feelings with which they are spoken, she writes, also has helped her to better relate to other people and, interestingly, to better understand her own feelings.

Her writing is crystal clear, and underlying each story is her belief that our attitude regarding mental illness is crucial. As in any difficult situation, it is the way we view our circumstances that determines the outcome. "The bias of everyone's attitude helps or hinders, consoles or disheartens, invigorates or incapacitates. It colors our collective perception." "I wrote this book," she continues, "to heighten awareness of the redemptive power in cultivating an attitude, above all, of hope."

The author has written a helpful and heartwarming book that deals with the heartache of mental illness, ways of coping with it, how the ill do contribute and teach, ways to help, and the many misconceptions that still abound in our society. Each story is a new lesson in the perplexing maze of mental illness.

Although Heaney is not a professional, she has learned about mental illness as all of us can learn, not just the experts. She believes that healing can take place if we extend our hearts and will if we remain hopeful. I would add, "And if we read a book such as this one, which shares stories we all can identify with, and that at times can even make us smile."

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