Through nature or nurture, we all inherit things from our families, which go beyond money, even if money or its lack conditions how we experience everything else handed down to us. We inherit our ideas about attachment, security, and love; we inherit poor eyesight, bad backs, and assumptions around work and leisure. We inherit illnesses, violence, and our historical situation. Nobody gets to choose the situation in which they enter the world. Victories against bad inheritances may only ever be partial or amount to just finding ways to manage them by working around their effect on our lives: going to therapy, wearing glasses, taking a regimen of pills. These inheritances don’t determine our lives, our beliefs, or our actions, but they form the backdrop against which we make our choices. They run, as the phrase goes, in the family.
If everybody gets something a little different from Dymphna’s story, for me, it is about these familial inheritances: what we can get away from and what we can’t. Dymphna is a princess, which she renounces in fleeing her kingdom and taking on a wandering jester’s costume. But throwing off your inheritance is not so easy; in the story, her father finds her by tracking her use of Irish money. Dymphna inherits her father’s violence, which shapes her life and which she only briefly escapes. Her Christian faith is another kind of inheritance, this time from her mother, as is the brave priest who accompanies her and, eventually, dies for her. Her looks, too, come from her mother; it is their resemblance that undoes her.
Read this way, Dymphna’s sympathetic connection to mental illness becomes clearer to me. Much like Dadd, she was faced with something dangerous and beyond her control: her violent and disturbing familial legacy is first lived with, then fled. When her father forces a confrontation, Dymphna, through her martyrdom, absorbs and transcends his violent, incestuous threats. Her father’s madness is her madness too, shaping her life as much as it does his, experienced by both of them in different ways. Madness and violence involve many people, not just the people we consider the responsible actors in a conflict. And it also explains something about Dymphna’s most prominent legacy in the present: Geel.
“I dreamed of a place like Geel long before I knew it was real,” Thériault remarks in her essay on Dymphna. “Through all the time I’d spent in Canada’s psychiatric system,”
years of white-knuckling it through months-long wait-lists just to get an intake appointment, late nights in the ER with panic attacks that wouldn’t stop, wards with doors that lock behind you with a gut-wrenching click—I’d tried to imagine how it might be different. I fantasized about a system where care is ongoing and mental health isn’t treated as a binary of “fine” and “crisis;” where patients are considered complex individuals rather than a list of dysfunctions; where clinicians understand the difference between staying alive and actually living.... To fix all that, you would have to change society entirely, but that’s exactly what Geel has done.
Geel is famous for its boarder program: mentally ill people, or boarders, live with host families and are incorporated into their normal family life. Unlike the programs of separation, hospitalization, and containment that characterize most treatment of the mentally ill, Geel incorporates their boarders into all aspects of everyday life. As Thériault notes, the host families are not even told their boarders’ official diagnoses. They learn to get along with their boarders the way you learn to get along with people, and not with types.
With the decline of mental institutions in America, there aren’t a lot of Richard Dadds, living isolated from the rest of the world for more than thirty years, but as anybody who has had a serious episode of mental illness can tell you, that doesn’t mean that treatment of the sick has progressed greatly. (On the other hand, if the number of mentally ill people in prisons are included, then in fact, there are many Richard Dadds, just not regarded as such.) Deinstitutionalization has removed one avenue of abuse, but has also left mentally ill people and those who care for them alone, sinking or swimming with the rest of us. In times of acute crisis, the first resort is still to separate a mentally ill person from the world of the healthy; the institution families and friends have to turn to in these moments of crisis is often the police, and encounters between the mentally ill and the police disproportionately end violently. For others, those who find these options inadequate or harmful, or the drug regimens they are expected to live on unbearable, the response, essentially, is: tough luck.
Geel is an object of fascination within the psychiatric community: it is obvious that Geel “works,” but not so obvious how what makes it work could be extracted from Geel’s context. How would you set up a boarder program in Manhattan or San Francisco? It shouldn’t be impossible, yet the backlash to such a suggestion is easy to imagine. Even Dymphna’s story is easy to imagine in a sensationalized, true-crime format, gleefully narrated as a cautionary tale.
What would it look like if we regarded mental illness as a part of life, and helping the mentally ill to live with the rest of us as a collective effort? When we look to Geel, we know the answer; when we look to Dymphna, we have a guide. If doing so requires changing our world, then we should probably get started.