August 10, 2015

By Jacob Bradshaw

Behind the Wall

Behind the Wall

By Mary and Elin Widdifield


With Behind the Wall, sisters Mary and Elin Widdifield, have crafted an important book that has the makings of a classic work of non-fiction storytelling. It contains stories of parents struggling with the challenges posed by children living with mental illness. Their stories are presented without reservation, with triumphs and tragedy, pain, grief, hope, and defeat all laid bare. They are stories told not by the authors, but by the parents themselves, carefully interviewed over the course of months. A minimal level of commentary provides useful context or is used to set the scene of an interview session. The reader feels as if they are sitting in the interview locations as a silent observer to the interview witness to the struggles and hopes of the storytellers.

The book is often hard to read, for it connects the reader to the strong and often painful emotions of the stories so well. The words of the parents are vivid and uncompromising. Sometimes they are horrifying. There is violence, death, substance abuse, psychosis, divorce, denial, poverty and crime. But at the same time there is also treatment, happiness, relief, families reunited and tragedies averted. Despair and elation lie a hair’s breadth apart.

Behind the Wall may not be an easy or fun read, but it is enthralling and deeply moving. It is a book that will hold meaning for anyone who reads it. Moreover, it is a book that contains wisdom and guidance for parents or caregivers who are struggling to care for a person living with mental illness. The parents in their stories provide examples of mistakes and successes, regrets and moments of pride. There are also additional chapters offering further thoughts on dealing with grief and feelings of guilt, and advice on caregiving and coping with challenges.

Elin Widdifield, who is a member of NAMI North Carolina’s board of directors and whose son lives with bipolar disorder, consolidates at the end of the book lessons drawn from the stories into “eight bits of advice”:

  • Be honest with yourself and your child
  • Trust your gut
  • Don’t be ashamed about a mental illness diagnosis
  • Be informed
  • Allow time and space for grieving
  • Find a method for coping that best fits you and your family
  • Don’t blame yourself or anyone else
  • Stay connected

The book ends with hope. The final chapter of the book is not the final chapter of the people whose stories it tells. The parents maintain hope for their children and belief in the possibility of recovery. They speak of their dreams and expectations, different from what they once were, but far from shattered.

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