Converging plotlines

By Amy Reiswig, October 2014

A family and an ecosystem in crisis is the subject of Ann Eriksson’s latest novel.

"You know, Ruby, understanding a human being is as difficult as studying a killer whale. Every once in a while, you see a dorsal fin or the whale heaves itself above the surface, but where the whale goes when underwater, what it does, or thinks are anyone’s guess.” So says one of the whale researchers in High Clear Bell of Morning (Douglas & McIntyre, April 2014), the fourth novel by Thetis Island author and biologist Ann Eriksson. 

Both species are smart, strong, and well studied but are also still huge mysteries, especially when it comes to the mind. In bringing together questions about environmental and human health, specifically mental health, Eriksson looks not just at the mystery but the vulnerability of humans and whales. In fact, her research suggests there may be more of an interconnection than we might expect. 

As Eriksson describes it, the book is about two families in crisis. One is a fairly typical human family suddenly confronted with 19-year-old Ruby’s onset of schizophrenia which, through her confusion and vulnerability in a less than perfect treatment system, lands her in the world of street drugs and the influence of predators. The other is a cetacean family familiar to many on the BC coast: L pod, one of the southern resident groups of killer whales. Categorized as endangered under Canada’s Species at Risk Act, these orcas are among the most polluted animals on Earth, and the novel explores the threat they face from environmental contaminants. These two families intersect through Ruby’s whale researcher father, Glen, and Eriksson draws parallels between their struggles with toxic forces—both physical and figurative—beyond their control. 

Ruby’s struggle is both hers and her family’s. We see, in sometimes disturbing detail, her psychosis, fear and difficulty understanding what’s happening to her. For example, when restrained and given an injection by an emergency room nurse, Ruby sees his facial features all in the wrong places, and “The edges of the room collapsed upon themselves, a shrinking circle closing around the mixed-up face.” What follows is no less confusing: the effects of medication that make her feel “wrapped in gauze”—a loss of spark, of self, which makes life as drab and flat as the ocean on a windless, grey day. Then comes the plunge into coke and heroin after meeting an addict (ironically, in a recovery group) who makes Ruby feel alive again but who, she realizes, is “another voice in her head. Telling her what to do.”

Ruby’s father, mother, and brother are also pushed around, and eventually apart, by the shockwaves from Ruby’s illness. When younger brother Sam says, “I hope she dies…Then we can all get back to our lives,” or mother Sybil tells Glen, “Please don’t bring her home. It’s starting to feel normal around here,” we see how harsh and unhealthy things can get within the family system. And (without ruining the story) Glen finds himself taking actions he could never have imagined in order to protect his daughter. 

Eriksson’s goal is not to make those living with schizophrenia feel guilty or hurt; it’s to be real about how mental illness can affect the well-being of the very important family system and to reassure families that schizophrenia is not the result of bad parenting or any other decision taken or not taken. Having helplessly watched close friends deal with their daughter’s mental illness, addiction, and inadequate help, she wanted to do something. 

“Families are often blamed,” Eriksson tells me over coffee on Kings, just steps from the BC Schizophrenia Society office. A woman of quiet intensity balancing compassion and anger, she laments that “there is often not enough funding, not enough psychiatrists, not enough facilities to treat dual diagnoses [of mental illness and addiction to street drugs]. Being a parent myself, I could imagine Glen’s perspective. A lot of people have told me it is very hard to read,” she admits. “It’s harrowing. But I didn’t want it to be whitewashed.” Nor is it hopeless.

Thus the book advocates for family involvement in treatment and recovery—a position supported in the BC Supreme Court’s recent finding of negligence in the case of Joseph Briante, who, experiencing delusional symptoms, sought emergency psychiatric help but was discharged without seeing a psychiatrist and later attempted suicide. One of the court’s main criticisms: Family, who had information about his condition, were not adequately consulted by emergency room personnel.

“We have a lot to answer for as a society,” Eriksson says, soberly, referring to both the state of our mental health care system and our oceans. Which leads us back to the whales. 

The book opens with Glen performing a necropsy on the beached corpse of 13-year-old (and fictional) L46. The toxicology report comes back finding “Organochlorine pesticides and PCBs in blubber and brain, methyl mercury in liver and heart, heavy metals, flame retardants. Endocrine disruptors, carcinogens, immunotoxins.” Glen declares: “L46 is a toxic waste dump.”  

Sadly, this fiction also reflects reality, one Eriksson has personal experience with. As a UVic biology student with a minor in environmental studies in the 1990s, she volunteered with the marine mammal research group and, for her degree, did a special study on cetacean toxicology. “It has stayed with me,” says Eriksson who, besides writing (four novels now), also works as a consulting biologist, focused primarily on marine and forest ecology. 

“I always wanted to write about whales, so I thought: ‘I’ll just make Ruby’s dad a whale biologist.’” But unexpectedly, over her seven years of research for this book, the two story strands drew together, and Eriksson discovered that scientists are looking at the connection between environmental health and mental health. For example, one of the key books in Eriksson’s environmental toxicity research is More than Genes: What Science Can Tell Us About Toxic Chemicals, Development and the Risk to our Children, which features a chapter on mental illness with an emphasis on schizophrenia. 

Through Glen, Eriksson also explores this link. Curious about his position as an apex predator (like orcas) in a toxic world, Glen sends off his own blood for analysis. His results show many of the same contaminants, and he becomes somewhat obsessed with questions around their impact on whale health and on human physical and mental health. 

As a biologist, Eriksson knows cause and effect are incredibly difficult to tease out, and she’s not making definitive claims. But she also knows that, in many cases, the research just isn’t being done. “Unless we eat it,” she tells me, “industrial chemicals are often not being tested for impacts on human health.” And with about 80,000 in use around the world and more added every year, Eriksson wants people to start asking more and tougher questions. 

Both plotlines also lead to a different kind of toxic environment: policies affecting the health of our oceans and our people. While issues like massive federal cuts to ocean pollution monitoring programs (witness the closing of marine mammal toxicologist Dr Peter Ross’s Sidney-based lab in 2012), or the inadequate number of youth mental health beds, are not mentioned specifically in the book, they are certainly behind the book, and some are discussed at length in Eriksson’s online newsletter (posted on her blog at anneriksson.ca), where she chronicled the novel’s research, writing, and publication process.

“One in a hundred,” Glen’s friend Colin says, referring to the prevalence of schizophrenia. “More people at any one time…than with Alzheimer’s and MS put together. How can something that common be so rarely talked about in public?” 

October 5–11 is Mental Illness Awareness Week, and High Clear Bell of Morning is a good way to get people talking. Discussion is essential, because the health of individuals and the world we live in is all about connection. 

Amy Reiswig reminds readers that BCSS offers resources for those with schizophrenia and their families, and that other community agencies—like Bipolar Disorder Society, Pandora Arts Collective, Victoria Native Friendship Centre, Friends of Music, and the Umbrella Society—work hard to help. No one needs to go it alone.