@

 

In journalism, we’re taught to ask the Five Ws and the Sixth H:

 

1. What happened?

2. Who was involved?

3. Where did it take place?

4. When did it take place?

5. Why did that happen?

6. How did it happen?

 

It’s always the Fifth W that is the hardest to answer.

 

***

April 17, 1985 (When)

You wake up earlier than usual that morning because you want to impress a boy at your junior high school. You walk past your parents’ bedroom and notice that your mother (Who) isn’t there, that her side of the bed is empty, an abandoned shell—crumpled-up sheets and a feathery impression of her torso, the salmon pink comforter still tucked in tight. Those army corners. Your father is snoring heavily, and you watch him through the crack in the door, the steady rise and fall of his chest. You wonder where your mother is. Your parents don’t get up until 7:30am. It’s 6.

Photo+Credit-+Anna+BeekeKate Axelrod’s debut novel The Law of Loving Others is about a high school student dealing with her mother’s recent schizophrenic break. The title was taken from a quote in Anna Karenina that reads: The law of loving others could not be discovered by reason, because it is unreasonable. This story is NOT autobiographical. Kate’s mother Marian Thurm was my workshop teacher at the Yale Writers’ Conference 2014. Marian and I chatted for hours in and out of class. She told me that the first story she sent out got published by The New Yorker when she was only twenty-five years old. Marian’s daughter Kate isn’t much older than that. She’s right on track. She holds a BA in creative writing from Oberlin College, a master’s in social work from Columbia University, and splits her time and efforts to satisfy both passions. When she flew out west this summer, I whipped up a batch of raw vegan pecan truffle bars and asked Kate over to my place in Santa Monica to get raw and candid about mental illness. We discussed her day job as an advocate in the criminal justice system, what it’s like to hail from New York literati and how she came to the story.

PhotoMarinSardy4In the aftermath of Robin Williams’ suicide, a plethora of articles and blogs have been published on the topic of mental illness and depression. As a writer whose work often directly or indirectly addresses mental illness, do you think this sort of mass response is helpful?

In some ways, yes, absolutely, the mass response is very helpful. The cultural silence around mental illness, without a doubt, made my experience as a child of someone with schizophrenia far worse than it needed to be. I had no one to talk to about it and no vocabulary for it even, and so that silence stunted my ability to even do my own thinking about it. In a culture without open conversation around mental illness, I was cut off from social support that could have helped enormously. So I’m pretty much glad across the board whenever anyone is openly discussing it. But with this I’ve also been glad that most of it seems to be aimed at educating people and fighting stigma.

I.

I ran into Owen Wilson on Cahuenga.
Owen Wilson, I said, stopping short.
Hey man, he said, how’s it going? Are there are a lot of cops around here?

Cops? I said.
I was kind of concerned.
Like, what do you mean? I said.
Cops, he said. You know, police. I don’t know if I can park my car here.

I turned and looked and Owen Wilson’s car was parked right in the middle of the sidewalk.
Oh, I said. Well, I don’t know. I mean, I wouldn’t do that.

I’m with Robin Williams on the golf course, where he insists upon hitting drives with putters and putts with woods. Ostensibly, we’re going to discuss Williams’ new movie, Night at the Museum 2, but the conversation is a narcissist’s dream of a jazzy bebop drum roll.

“Oh, you want to talk about the movie,” Williams says. “Well, too bad, because we’re golfing on the moon. I’m talking holes the size of craters and man I still can’t sink a putt. A putt’s like a sinker, like I’m fishing. I’m fisherman Jack, out on the oceans. Say, there, that’s Moby Dick. Harrr, thar she blows, it’s Jaws and he done blowed up. Who says Jaws is a man? Maybe it’s a woman. Hi, I’m Miss Jaws, sho’ ’nuff, and you best have a J-O-B if you wanna dance with me.”