It wasn’t until James FitzGerald was asked to participate in a new reading series at the Parkdale Activity Recreation Centre (PARC) that he learned what the west-end drop in centre is all about.
Award winning author and journalist FitzGerald, 62, has lived in Roncesvalles Village for the past three years. Despite having passed by PARC many times, he had never been inside until a few months ago when was asked to be the first author featured in PARC’s new Book With Us series, which is billed as “Adventures in Reading, celebrating the richness and diversity of our neighbourhood”.
FitzGerald took a tour of the centre, a place where the aim is that everyone live with dignity, safety and enough resources to achieve their potential.
“I assumed it was a soup kitchen kind of a place... but what really came through to me is that it is first and foremost a community, where people can be themselves, come in and hang out and have a life together,” FitzGerald said.
PARC, FitzGerald said, is a place for art, writing, activity, and humanizes the every day experience for people with mental health struggles and allows them to shed the stigma that comes from psychiatric labeling.
“I think ultimately it does not do a person a service to give them some label like bipolar or schizoaffective disorder,” he said. “It becomes part of their identity and they are stuck with it.”
That de-pathologizing, which he said he sees at PARC, is a topic of great interest to FitzGerald; it is a subject addressed in his 2010 book, What Disturbs Our Blood: A Son’s Quest to Redeem the Past.
FitzGerald was the 2010 winner of the Writer’s’ Union Trust Prize for What Disturbs Our Blood. His first book, Old Boys, was an oral history of Upper Canada College that exposed sexual abuse at the school. It was published in 1994 and led to three teachers being charged and a class action lawsuit.
What Disturbs Our Blood is a family memoir intertwined with the history of Canadian medicine and psychiatry.
Both FitzGerald’s grandfather, prominent Canadian physician John (Gerry) FitzGerald and his father John (Jack) Fitzgerald, also a leader in Canadian medicine, were driven beyond sanity by the pressures in their careers and were immersed into mental health treatment, like electric shock therapy and insulin shock therapy, which FitzGerald said led to both men’s demise.
FitzGerald grew up in Forest Hill in a privileged family and attended private school.
“We had everything, on the outside,” he said. “And yet there was madness in our family. There was also brilliance and brilliant achievements, but both men cracked up in their mid-life crisis in their 50s.”
His grandfather was founder of the internationally renowned Connaught Laboratories and the University of Toronto School of Hygiene. He initially studied psychiatry, and did internships at John Hopkins Hospital and Sheppard Pratt psychiatric hospital before becoming the clinical director and chief pathologist of the Toronto Asylum for the Insane. He also served as Dean of Medicine at the University of Toronto.
But, at the height of his career, John Fitzgerald had a mid-life crisis and fell into a deep depression.
He was given insulin shock therapy at an asylum in the United States.
“When he got out he killed himself,” FitzGerald said. “The treatment didn’t make him better, it made him more suicidal.”
That was ten years before FitzGerald was born and his grandfather’s story was kept a family secret.
The pattern continued with FitzGerald’s father, Jack FitzGerald, who was a pioneer in his field of medicine and opened the first allergy clinic in Toronto.
It was when FitzGerald was 15 or 16 that his father had a nervous breakdown and fell into a depression. He tried to kill himself using morphine and again in 1970 only to be found by FitzGerald’s sister who saved him.
He spent the rest of his life, until his death in 1992, drugged and lethargic.
It was with his father’s second suicide attempt that FitzGerald, a budding journalist, said he started to delve into his family’s secrets of suicide and mental health.
“That was the turning point because that was when I started asking questions,” FitzGerald said.
He started researching and asking questions of his father and grandfather’s aging colleagues and his mother to learn more about these men who were virtual strangers to him.
It wasn’t until he went to the CAMH archives in 1995, and by what he calls a “cosmic coincidence” found 60 confessional letters written by his grandfather at the end of his life to a psychiatrist friend.
“They had been sitting for 40 years untouched on a shelf,” he explained. “That week that I decided to walk in there (the wife of the friend) decided to donate them to the CAMH archives.”
He read them all in one sitting, uncovering the dramatic and emotional life of a man who was a complete stranger to FitzGerald up to that point.
“Then I realized I had a book,” he said.
That book, What Disturbs Our Blood, is a true to life psychological drama and mystery novel exploring the fine line between high achievement and madness.
“It is not a love letter to psychiatry,” FitzGerald said. “It is a kind of indictment of the history of psychiatry.”
FitzGerald will discuss his book at PARC, 1499 Queen St. W, on Nov. 19 at 7 p.m. The event is pay-what-you-can with a suggested donation of $10. Refreshments and a tour of PARC facilities will be offered.
The primary impetus of the series is community outreach, welcoming the broader community into PARC to see what they do there, as well as showcasing local authors who write about subjects that touch the neighbourhood.
The next presentation in the Book With Us series is on Jan. 21, 2013. Andrew J. Borkowski will be reading from his linked collection of shorts, Copernicus Avenue, which recently won him the 2012 Toronto Book Award.