Schizophrenia, Close Up


Reprinted with permission of Lancaster County Intelligencer Journal,
October 4, 2005
By Susan E. Lindt

LANCASTER COUNTY, PA – Even as a child, Susan Smiley knew her mother was different. Life was an unending roller coaster of unpredictability, suicide attempts, betrayal, neglect, fear and shame.

Smiley kept it a secret even after she grew up and became a documentary filmmaker, chronicling the lives of everyday heroes for Discovery Channel, History Channel, Sci Fi Channel, MTV and PBS on topics ranging from truck driving in the Arctic to land mine removal in Bosnia. But the real drama turned out to be Smiley’s own story.

Out of the Shadow is the award-winning filmmaker’s 67-minute documentary about five years in the recent life of her mother, Millie, and Millie’s battle with schizophrenia in a disorganized health care system charged with helping her.

Although Smiley rarely disclosed the family secret, she boldly turned the camera inward to capture the truth about schizophrenia, using old family pho- tographs and home movies and interviews with family members that reveal the best and worst of Millie, a fair composite sketch of schizophrenia’s two faces.

“It was a way for me to channel my pain and frustration that I thought would be very productive,” Smiley said of the film. “When I started researching schizo- phrenia and saw that one out of 100 people have it, I thought it was crazy that so many people have it but nobody really understands what it is. I thought making this film would help me to better understand my mom’s illness and
educate others.”

What people will see is a story that even Smiley’s mother hasn’t watched from beginning to end — a portrait of deteriorating mental health riddled at times with rage and profanity, tenderness and confusion. “She didn’t really want to see the whole thing,” Smiley said of her mother, who’s now living a stable life in a Chicago group home. “But I did this with her approval.”

“When we were watching it, it got to some points that she didn’t want to see any more. She said, ‘I don’t like the way my life has turned out. It just depresses me.’ I respect that. What has happened in her life is sad.”

Still, Smiley and her mother appreciates that the film has been embraced by the mental health community and was chosen as an official selection of the Vancouver International Film Festival and Silverdocs, a documentary film festival sponsored by Discovery Channel and American Film Institute.

Mildred Smiley was a tall beauty with Grace Kelly looks and two young daughters when her paranoid schizophrenia first manifested itself.

Family members admit to Smiley’s camera they knew the hell in which the girls lived, with beatings in front of neighbors from a mother who regularly told them the CIA and FBI had planted cameras throughout the house to spy on them. But neither neighbors nor family acted on the girls’ behalf or even acknowledged there was anything wrong with Millie.

“It truly never occurred to me that you were victims as well,” Millie’s cousin, Nancy, tells the camera, operated by Smiley.

Out of the Shadow is best at portraying how everyone in schizophrenia’s wake is a victim, whether it’s Millie’s daughters or their father, who left the family when Smiley was 4 but still feels guilt for abandoning his daughters.

“This film resonates for anyone who has cared for a loved one who’s disabled in any way, whether it’s Alzheimer’s or retardation,” Smiley said. “When you’re responsible for a loved one who’s severely disabled, it’s a massive responsibility, and you’re faced with moral dilemmas all the time. I narrate the film and go into my feelings and consciousness of where I was at.”

More than anything, Smiley said, she hoped to make a film that would conjure compassion and awareness for those with mental illness.

“You pass a homeless person on the street and you might think twice about them suffering from schizophrenia and hopefully be more proactive about trying to help,” Smiley said. “A lot of us who don’t understand the illness are simply reactive. We think our mother or our brother is just a jerk who can’t pull their lives together.

“There are a lot of myths and misconceptions because people don’t understand the illness and how it changes people. It was a way for me to channel my pain and frustration that I thought would be very productive.”