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My Mysterious Son (2014)

Before I move on with the rest of Quartz, I’d like to take a moment to ‘officially’ review a book for the month. A little while ago, I had the pleasure to learn about My Mysterious Son after meeting the author, Dick Russell, at a writing workshop with the Inside Out Writers. When ‘D.R.’ gave me his book, I thanked him for the journey, without knowing just how challenging its contents would actually be to grapple with. From the opening, D.R. leaves no doubt for readers about just how much of his life he’s sharing with others:

“This is a book about a different interpretation of schizophrenia, based upon almost twenty years of one father’s experience with his son’s struggle against mental illness. Experiences fraught with desperation, confusion, incomprehension, and pain. Experiences also filled with surprise, humor, adventure, and hope. Experiences that ultimately go beyond (but do not discard) the Western “medical model” for treating mental illness.”

Perhaps no moment in the book speaks more to the doubled-edged nature of these experiences than the poetic turning point of the journey, when one morning, the author’s then-seventeen year old son, Franklin, hands him a mysterious note recounting a ‘dream-like’ journey he found himself in the night before.

Russell shares this note in the book, but so readers can encounter it for themselves, I’ll leave the note unquoted. What I can say about its contents, however, is that I found myself immediately struck by Franklin’s ability to capture the brilliant images of his journey so vividly.

The note is sharp and enigmatic, taking readers from one edge of a galactic field to another, and right away, it’s clear that Franklin is dealing with a multitude of worlds beyond his own, and that what he’s able to ‘bring back’ from this intersection of realities is something to be treasured.

At the same time, it’s also clear that even if Franklin brings back treasures, there’s only so much understanding one can reach with them, as ultimately the note leaves readers with more questions than answers.

As fate would have it, Franklin’s note was just the beginning of a tragic divorce from a rather “normal” teenage life up to that point, since what follows next is a harrowing ten years in hospitals, intensive medication, bitter identity crises, effective and ineffective therapy, and so much more for him and his mother and father due to a form of schizophrenia he’s diagnosed with.

The experience for Franklin is magnified by his status as an only child, as well as the fact that his parents separated when he was still just a newborn. Perhaps most of all, however, Franklin and his family’s journey is complicated by his struggle to come to terms with his biracial identity. as the son of a Black mother and white father.

Franklin is dark-skinned, and like most people of color — and Black people in America in particular — Franklin struggles with a world that seems to place little to no value on his life. This proves difficult for his white father to grasp, and leads to more than a number of searing confrontations between them on the difference of their skin colors.

At times, Franklin blatantly calls his father an impostor, or implies that someone else is his true ‘ole man’. This is tough to read through, but I can only imagine how much tougher it is to breathe through for the author. Still, D.R. manages to hang on to every sharp-edged word uttered by his son, determined to learn from and use the words as building blocks rather than not.

Moreover, as Russell states at the outset, in contrast to the bitter words between him and his son, there is also a world’s worth of beautiful ‘gems’ the author hears from Franklin’s voice on things. Along with a magnetic vision, Franklin commands a charming knowledge of esoteric facts on language, people, and geography, which on more than a few occasions leave readers in pleasant awe.

This is the journey through My Mysterious Son, characterized as much by ‘progress’ as ‘regression’ like the life of any ‘normal’ human being. However, things take another major turning point towards the end of the book, when Franklin and his father meet the famed West African writer and teacher Malidoma, who practices ancestral indigenous healing techniques for illness.

Franklin takes well to the West African, and alongside his father, he develops a significant relation with the world renowned spiritual leader, which each of them express gratitude for, and which the author movingly describes.

This alone makes My Mysterious Son a worthy read, but there’s more, considering the cross-roads at which our country remains stuck at on the subject of race. After all, Malidoma, his West-African roots notwithstanding, like Franklin, is ultimately a Black man, with spiritual and divine knowledge of the world around him that’s more precious than diamonds or gold can ever be. This knowledge — like that of the alternative forms of healing to Western medicine the author encounters in his effort to help his son — is indigenous and ancestral information, which — were it not for the author’s open heart and mind — he might never have found for himself and Franklin.

By extension then, it’s fair to say that My Mysterious Son shows how by looking past the differences of their skin colors and the different worlds they contain, and in listening for the value of Franklin‘s, and later Malidoma’s voices–coupled with Franklin’s willingness to work with his father on dealing with his condition– both men save each other from almost-certain destruction and loss from one another’s lives. For this, the book is not just a great read and journey, but a reading and journey which all Americans should take part in. I thank both D.R. and Franklin for the wisdom wrought forth by such an unforgettable time together.

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