by Darby Penney
"Take These Broken Wings" powerfully demonstrates that recovery from a schizophrenia diagnosis without psychiatric drugs is not just a possibility, but can be a reality. The documentary film braids together authoritative witness testimony from two recovered women, the recollections of therapists who have helped people facilitate their own recoveries, scientific evidence from the established literature, and snippets of interviews with over 100 passers-by in New York's Washington Square Park who express public perceptions about schizophrenia and its treatment. Daniel Mackler, a New York City psychotherapist and first-time filmmaker, uses these diverse elements to subtly orchestrate an irrefutable argument, and does so with a sense of wit and humor that belies the seriousness of the film's message.
Mackler, as he acknowledges in the director's interview (one of several intriguing extras on the DVD), was fortunate to have great material to work with. He convinced several well-known psychotherapists who advocate recovery without drugs to sit before his camera. Central to the film are interviews with two women who recovered from diagnoses of schizophrenia and long hospitalizations without medications, both of whom discuss their experiences in unsparing detail. Joanne Greenberg is the author of I Never Promised You A Rose Garden, the 1964 best-seller that is a fictionalized account of her psychotherapy with Frieda Fromm-Reichmann at Chestnut Lodge in the 1940s, before the advent of modern "anti-psychotic" drugs. Catherine Penney (no relation) is now a psychiatric nurse. Her story of recovery is recounted in Dante's Cure: A Journey Out of Madness, by her therapist, Daniel Dorman, M.D., who also appears.
Mackler's skill as an interviewer enabled him to gather the moving material in the film. This skill is demonstrated by the frank comments he elicited from dozens of strangers in Washington Square Park - people wide-ranging in age, ethnicity, education, socio-economic background and beliefs. "When you hear the word 'schizophrenia,' what is the first thing that comes into your head?" he asks these people in the film's opening moments. He then proceeds to intersperse their brief answers ("voices," "paranoia," "out of touch with reality") to parallel Penney's and Greenberg's descriptions of the inner experiences that led to their hospitalizations. This technique at first appears to confirm the negative stereotypes expressed by the Washington Square Park interviewees. But its use throughout the film, as the comments of the passers-by begin to subtly shift toward the positive, serves to reinforce the experiences of Penney, Greenberg and the mental health professionals to show that recovery without drugs is genuine.
Psychologist Bertram Karon, who treats people solely through psychotherapy, establishes a key theme of the film early on. "I have never met a schizophrenic (sic) whose life wouldn't have driven me crazy if I had to live it," he asserts. Mackler interweaves Greenberg's and Penney's painful childhood memories with footage of mental health professionals' experiences to powerfully depict the view that "psychotic symptoms" are responses to trauma that, as therapist Albert Galves puts it, "people create to protect themselves."
Science journalist Robert Whitaker, author of Mad in America (2003) challenges the prevailing psychiatric ideology about the effectiveness and necessity of psychiatric medications, and he, too, appears on camera. Whitaker uses data from World Health Organization studies comparing recovery rates across cultures and from Courtney Harding's 1987 groundbreaking, 30-year follow-up study of long-stay inmates of Vermont's state hospital. Harding found that people who don't take psychiatric drugs are in fact more likely to recover than those who do.
That recovery without medication is a long, difficult process requiring tremendous effort on the part of the diagnosed person and the therapist is a theme that pervades the film. Penney and Dorman, for instance, had a total of 1300 therapy sessions together over eight years, including almost daily meetings during the years Catherine Penney was hospitalized. While such intensive therapy may not be possible for most people in this era of managed care, it clearly had an impact. Penney talks movingly of the inner work she did during and after that time, often struggling with failure and disappointment.
A therapist who clearly loves working with people diagnosed with schizophrenia is Danielle Knafo. She suggests that the mental health field resists the evidence of drug-free recovery because it requires so much work on the part of the therapist, who may find it easier to write a prescription that keeps the person stable but not fully recovered.
By the end of the film, the Washington Square Park interviewees' comments enthusiastically echo the evidence that Greenberg, Penney and the others in the film present - that without drugs recovery from a diagnosis of schizophrenia is genuine and that the mental health field needs to reconstitute itself in order to make it possible for all. Everyone involved in the mental health field - practitioners, administrators, funders, people with psychiatric histories, their families - needs to see this upbeat and hopeful film.
"Take These Broken Wings" has a web site.
*Darby Penney is the author, with Peter Stastny, of The Lives They Left Behind: Suitcases from a State Hospital Attic (Bellevue Literary Press, 2008). A traveling exhibit based on the book is currently on a national tour The Suitcase Exhibit. Penney was formerly the Director of Recipient Affairs at the New York State Office of Mental Health, and is currently a Senior Research Associate at Advocates for Human Potential, Inc.