Madness And Family: On Sandra Luckow’s Moving Documentary
Written by Riya Mirchandaney
Barnard film professor Sandra Luckow recently released a new documentary, That Way Madness Lies…, which was seven years in the making. Staff writer Riya Mirchandaney went to check it out.
“It is essentially the destruction of my family,” remarked Professor Sandra Luckow, by way of introducing her documentary “That Way Madness Lies…” Luckow’s comment was striking in its accuracy, for while the documentary was disguised as a story about her brother Duanne’s struggle with paranoid schizophrenia and the myriad of ways in which the systems in power failed him, the systems—that is, law and medicine—were only a backdrop for the story at the film’s core, a story of a resilient, desperate family drowning within itself, trying to cope with the series of traumas that hit them, without the luxury of being able to ask why any of this was happening.
The film begins with Luckow painstakingly calling the Oregon State Hospital, where her brother was involuntarily committed after being arrested. It is exhausting to watch her try to get an ounce of information about her brother, as the hospital administration repeatedly refuses to admit that he has even been committed, hiding behind a veil of “confidentiality.”
Luckow then gives a brief narration her family’s story, before anyone began to worry about Duanne (he is in his forties at the beginning of the film—an atypical age, as schizophrenia is usually diagnosed in one’s late teens or twenties). This is a family with quirks they take pride in: Luckow’s mother created miniatures inspired by her wealthy Mexican childhood, Luckow’s father once built his own gyrocopter, Luckow herself performed as a ventriloquist, and Duanne created short films with wild stunts, emblematic of James Bond movies.
But the quaint idealism that shrouds her past is harshly interrupted by the story of the present: Duanne, Luckow is beginning to realize, is not okay. Duanne becomes obsessed with a psychic crystal child on the internet called “Jessica Mystic,” believing that she is speaking only to him. Without any money or identification, he drives to Canada to find her, and when he reaches the border, he speeds through and is arrested and detained for six hours. Later, worried sick, Luckow calls the police.
Although the film is directed by Luckow, some of the most haunting scenes are actually shot by her brother Duanne, whose perspective represents a rare and powerful glimpse of the firsthand experience of mental illness. We watch through Duanne’s eyes as the police ask, in a bored, uninvested way, why he is filming, if he is at risk of hurting himself or others, if he has thought about seeking professional help. Duanne responds that he has not considered seeking help, because he does not believe he needs it.
They take Duanne to the hospital and he is released after five days because he refused to take any medication, proclaiming his beliefs in a “medical conspiracy against America.” Duanne’s life quickly spirals and he falls into financial trouble, Farmers’ insurance gets a restraining order against him, he stops paying his bills, he moves to a tent in his backyard and talks about getting off the grid.
In one scene, employees from PG&E are frustrated at his attempts to get around paying for electricity, and Duanne is yelling at them. One employee asks, condescendingly, “Are you taking any medication?” Duanne says that he is not, to which the man responds, “Should you be?”
When Duanne gets some money from selling a compass, his sister asks what he is going to do with it, and he says bluntly, “I’m going to invest it into paying some taxes in Nigeria.” The joke of Nigerian email scams is suddenly a real threat to a man’s livelihood, and we find out that Duanne has been emailing with the scammers for months. He is determined to go through with this deal, and his family’s insistence that it is a bad decision only pushes him further away.
The film details the rest of the family’s destruction: Luckow’s father’s dementia worsens, Luckow’s mother suffers a fall and is put on life support, Luckow and others begin to fear that Duanne’s illness will lead to him harming others. When an unidentified shooter terrorizes shoppers at the Clackamas Town Center, Luckow wonders if it is her brother.
At one point, Luckow calls the mental health crisis line, remarking dryly, “I should have it on speed dial.”
When their mom dies, Duanne doesn’t believe his family when they tell him, thinking they are trying to trick him into coming to the hospital. Duanne then sends Luckow threatening messages on Facebook. One of them includes the sentence, “You sure want to go out with a bang, huh?”
There is much more that goes wrong. Duanne ends up homeless, spray-paints bomb threats on the facade of the house he used to live in, gets impulsively married to a manipulative older woman, moves to Seattle, is arrested after harassing a woman, and is force-medicated at Western State Hospital. He is eventually released to the home of a woman who is willing to host him, a woman he refers to as his “fiancee.”
After all of this, after trying to advocate for him and trying to get him the help he needs, Luckow realizes that she can no longer be her brother’s keeper. He does not want her in his life. She moves back to New York, and mails Duanne some keepsakes, the ashes of both their dead parents, and a letter reminding him that she will always be his sister. It is touching but feels clearly forced: Luckow acknowledges this in the discussion after the screening, saying that the end of the movie is not really the end of her story, but, after all, the movie did have to end somehow. She mentions that her first time speaking to Duanne since he was released from the hospital will be this coming Thursday.
The two other panelists, along with Luckow, were Dr. Lloyd Sederer, Chief Medical Officer at the New York State Office of Mental Health, and Dr. Kim Hopper, professor at the Mailman School of Public Health.
The most interesting discussion centered around diagnosis and stigma. On the point of Duanne refusing to take medication, Dr. Hopper resisted the notion that mental illness is what prevents the mentally ill from taking medication, arguing that anyone who becomes mentally ill grows up in a society that stigmatizes mental illness. In order to receive help, you have to admit that you need it, and you have to admit that you are mentally ill, which brings with it a slew of associations, none of which are positive. Of course people would refuse medication. Dr. Sederer remarked plainly that he believes “diagnosis is highly overrated,” also noting that clinicians don’t get paid if they don’t diagnose, which perhaps is a flaw in the system.
The strange part is that medications are not diagnosis-specific, but symptom-specific. There are antipsychotics like clozapine that are used as treatment for schizophrenia, but they really only target hallucinations, which, sure, is a symptom of schizophrenia, but not only schizophrenia, and not all of schizophrenia. I wonder if there really is a practical use to handing out diagnoses that tack onto individuals, that allow us to dehumanize people by referring to them as “schizophrenics,” as if their mental illness subsumes their identity.
Although ripe with insight about our mental health system, the film was at its heart a personal and family tragedy, one that I believe everyone should see.
Luckow said, “We see a life that had been fully realized, and then he lost everything.”
Image via Columbia University School of the Arts.