Pete Earley had thirty-years of journalism experience, mostly as a reporter for the Washington Post, before he wrote Crazy – his nonfiction book about travails faced by his own family. Earley navigates America’s extremely dysfunctional mental health system, culminating with the horrors of the Miami-Dade County Jail.
The book was inspired by his son Mike’s schizo-affective disorder and documents the unlawful acts that landed him in a courtroom, potentially destroying his future and leading him and his family on a nightmare journey. Earley discovers the faults of the system as he attempts to help his son. He decides that the only way it will change is for him to illuminate the dire situation that mentally ill people face every day in courts, jails and hospitals.
Each section of the book starts out with a chapter about Mike, Earley’s son, describing his predicament and Earley’s own worries and frustrations. Subsequent chapters follow other mentally ill people who caught Earley’s interest.
Earley reconstructs the lives of his characters, backtracking to their early childhood and shadowing them into the present – or in some cases to the time of their premature deaths. He appeals to our empathy this way, showing us that mentally ill are not deviants who need to be jailed for punishment. Even the most disturbed people he follows were once everyday people like him, Mike and the reader.
He describes each character’s backstory, which often involves enduring a horrible childhood, and shows them cycling the street, hospitals, jails and the street again. He also illuminates how an untrained police force in Miami-Dade County sometimes kills mentally ill people unnecessarily because they simply don’t know any other response.
The book points out that the mental health system is in need of a major overhaul. This is emphasized throughout the book by Earley’s own thoughts as well as interviews with doctors, lawyers and family members and mentally ill people. Frustration and discouragement are major themes of the book, as well as the indifference – sometimes cruelty – inflicted by people who don’t see themselves as personally connected with mental health issues.
Crazy helped me see the truth behind the mental health system and the horrendous ordeals that affected people undergo simply to live their lives. The cycle of imprisonment, being thrown out on the streets, and being warehoused in institutions or bad group homes reflects poorly on our society. Instead of attempting to help mentally ill people, Earley says, people wish to push them away and forget about them. Earley’s emotional connection to his son Mike helps connect us with these people, and we start to think about how to change the situation.