Journeys of the mind
June 9, 2008 · Updated 3:34 PM
"A Glove on My Heart is just what Judith Brown seems to lack. The title of Brown's new book refers to her initial intent to shield her feelings by remaining detached from the mentally ill clients with whom she would work.Ironically, her eventual immersion in the world of mental illness without self-protection turned out to be her great strength. Her other asset was another deficit - a dearth of technical nomenclature and professional veneer, those other gloves on the heart.The most important thing I did was to stay upbeat, Brown said. I was not a therapist; I didn't have to demand anything of them. I could be the one to give them hugs, because I was 'only' a friend, a volunteer. She volunteered for a year at a West Seattle transitional housing facility for the mentally ill, which her psychiatrist husband had helped found a quarter century before.A Glove on My Heart, the fruit of Brown's journals during her ferry commute, is comprised of 14 vignettes, miniportraits of clients and, inevitably, of Brown herself.Mental illness can be off-putting, but Brown came to her clients with experience as a volunteer some might regard as challenging. She had lived in Ethiopia under the auspices of Plowshares, a volunteer organization for Peace Corps graduates, to help develop organic agriculture techniques for a village.When she got back to the United States, Brown did a six-year stint as an english teacher at Lakeside School in Seattle. She also published Farinji, a book about her time in Africa. Then she became restless.She remembered her husband said of his therapeutic practice that the most severely afflicted clients had often turned out to be the most rewarding ones. So she decided that new adventure lay within the walls of the unassuming West Seattle home for the severely mentally ill.The agency's agenda was to help residents build self-esteem and gain a measure of independence, if not a cure. Her first client, the cantankerous, drooling Mike, promptly informed Brown that she was old - a fact she confirmed with equanimity. But not so many visits later, he decided she could be a worthy partner, age notwithstanding, and proposed that the two run away together. He often tried the same question with a new locale, as if geography were the only impediment.Brown took clients swimming, to the doctor and shopping. She cared for a mentally ill man dying of cancer, and even helped compose a client's a love letter. Brown was indeed consistently upbeat, and endlessly interested in her charges' idiosyncrasies. With a fiction writer's eye for detail, she does bring clients to life.She deconstructs the easy categorization with which many dispatch the mentally ill. They become, instead, William, who likes civil war documentaries; Samantha, who sneaks illicit bags of popcorn into the microwave; Douglas, who writes a 289-page science fiction novel. For Brown, having known individual clients makes it impossible to call them loonies. Not to friends - or even in her own head. A Glove On My Heart is predominantly prose interspersed with poetry. The initial impulse was a poetic one, however. Brown's writing on the ferry was snippets of poetry which became her journal.By the time her year of commuting was up, Brown had written 75 poems. She knew enough to realize that her poems were passable but not stellar. She looked to Nancy Rekow, who runs a writers' workshop on Bainbridge, for critique. Rekow suggested she consider a prose setting to give the poems context.Brown translated that advice to building narrative around the poems, so that vignettes are punctuated with apposite poetry. She carefully alerts the reader that a poem is forthcoming, and explains how it fits. Her intent may be to smooth the transition from one form to the other, but she might also have chosen to let the disparate forms stand, side by side, and let readers construct their own conceptual bridge between the two.Ultimately, it is strong narrative that moves one through this compelling saga. Mental illness sometimes seems the only disability still isolated by a rampart of myth and a moat of prejudice, barriers that Brown would see removed.My object was to make the mentally ill attractive and intriguing, Brown said, because they are so misunderstood.* * * * *Judith Brown reads from A Glove On My Heart at Eagle Harbor Books on Sunday, Jan. 21 at 3 p.m. "