By Dawn Brown, NAMI Information and Referral Specialist
By Victor LaValle
As only someone who has been there could, novelist Victor LaValle author of The Devil in Silver takes the reader inside New Hyde Mental Institution in Queens, New York, where the main character, Pepper, is admitted in handcuffs for a 72 hour psych evaluation at the end of a cop’s night shift. Pepper is a big, rowdy brawler guilt of petty crimes, but does not have a mental illness. But when he finds he’s been taken to a mental hosptial, he decides to wait it out the 72 hour hold and go home. But on his first night inside, Pepper is attacked by a horrifying creature that is quickly removed from his room by hospital staff. The next morning other patients confirm that after dark the creature roams the hallways.
This nightmarish event provides a rallying point for Pepper and several other patients who come together and fight back against the creature, the hospital’s staff and their own demons. Pepper’s cohorts include: Dorry, an old-timer with schizophrenia who’s been on the ward for decades; Coffee, an African immigrant, who is struggling with severe obsessive-compulsive disorder; and Loochie, a hot-headed teenager with bipolar disorder. LaValle handles the development of the characters with mental illness well. Much more than a stereotype or bundle of symptoms, we get to know each character as a complex individual.
As the plan develops, and ultimately unravels, the setting, circumstances and characters are used by the author to transform the main character, Pepper, from selfish to selfless as he comes to respect and care for the other characters.
The Devil in Silver is labeled a horror thriller, but the horror it reveals is not supernatural. The horror is the reality of a mental healthcare system that is tragically inadequate and underfunded. It is the overworked, disinterested staff members who push pills and use restraints to manage and control the patients. It is lack of resources that force the hospital to turn a concrete stairwell into holding cell. It is the reality of Pepper’s 72 hour admission quickly turning into weeks and then months. The horror is the realization that the system is operating exactly as it was designed to because no one who can fix it is interested in fixing it.
Pepper’s doctor describes it this way: “A wise man once said that every system is designed to give you the results you actually get. . . . This system is working.”
“For some people,” Pepper retorts.
“Wrong,” the doctor tells him. “The system is working exactly right for those it was intended for. That’s why it hasn’t been fixed. Because it isn’t broken!”
The author, Victor LaValle, has a family history of mental illness and encountered his own psychological problems. These factors contribute to make The Devil in Silver credible, memorable and for some, possibly disturbing. It was all those things to me.