In this new series we’re interviewing authors of memoirs, which focus on mental illness.
This month we spoke with Millicent Monks, author of Songs of Three Islands: A Personal Tale of Motherhood and Mental Illness in an Iconic American Family.
Monks was born into the legendary Carnegie family. Her great-grandfather was Andrew Carnegie’s brother, Thomas.
We often think that people who have achieved iconic status or perhaps anyone with fame, fortune, achievements or accolades are somehow protected from suffering. Unfortunately, that’s just not the case.
The Carnegie family, like all families, was affected by mental illness. In fact, four generations of women struggled with serious mental illness, including paranoid schizophrenia.
In her memoir, Monks tells the story of her family, the overwhelming role mental illness has played in her personal life and what finally helped her heal.
Below, she revealed what inspired her to share her story, what helped her overcome her own depression and traumatic childhood, the stigma mothers face when their child has mental illness, and what she hopes readers gain from her book.
1. What inspired you to write your memoir?
I have always — ever since a child — loved to write.
It helped me — in a diary — to express what I was feeling in a way that felt safe and honest and secret. And in later life I hoped my experience might help other mothers who had a serious mentally ill child and help all of us mothers deal with the shame felt of being a mother with a mentally ill child and learn ways to overcome it.
2. In your family, mental illness just wasn’t acknowledged. Why do you think it was largely ignored? Did stigma play a prominent role?
I am 80 years old now and the difference between understanding mental illness when I was 20 and had a mentally ill child is considerable. The mother was often considered the cause of their child’s mental illness in those days. So, yes, stigma did play a big role.
I believe we still have a way to go in help and understanding for mothers. I believe mental illness still carries a large burden for families, especially for mothers.
3. In the book you write, “For years I have felt like the psychiatric profession made witches of mothers. Like the witches of Salem, women accused of causing the children to be crazy and then hanged for it.” Why did you feel this way? Do you think it’s gotten better?
I think it has been some 40 years since our daughter spent years in a mental hospital. I felt I was somehow responsible for her illness, which was devastating and not helpful. I believe that has since changed, although I do believe that mental illness for the most part is still in the dark ages and the shame many mothers feel is still there.
4. Your mother had paranoid schizophrenia, which remained untreated, creating a chaotic and traumatic childhood for you. You’ve also struggled with depression. What has helped you heal?
I am very fortunate to have a strong and happy marriage and a large extended family and for many years. Also I had the help of a Jungian analyst. And, writing the book was healthy for me in that I hoped it might be of help to other mothers of mentally ill children and their families.
5. What do you think are the best ways parents can support their kids who have serious mental illness?
I guess first of all, if possible, stay married and support each other. A child’s mental illness can sadly take a tremendous toll on both the mother and father — get help from whatever works best for the family and the child.
A group of mothers with mentally ill children to share problems and experiences with can be very supportive.
Stay healthy and take care of yourself. If you as a mother are stable, that is important for your sake and the child’s.
6. What would I like readers to take away from my memoir?
I hope that perhaps other mothers who read my book will be able to share and understand the guilt and pain and often confusion of having a mentally ill child that so often even now makes it so difficult for us to share.
I hope my book might open up a door and mothers might begin to speak out in much the same way the gay community has lately — put shame behind us and become a force and spokeswomen for ourselves and our children.