I have a stack of books I received at Christmas that are begging to be read, but there’s one book I read this past month that had me ignoring all the rest. Friend and biographer Shawn Smucker has released a new book, Refuse to Drown, and I was lucky enough to get an advance copy for review. From the moment it arrived in the mail, I couldn’t put it down. I think I read the first 75 pages in one sitting.
Refuse to Drown is the true story of Tim Kreider, his son Alec, and the Haines family murders (Lancaster, Pa., 2007.) With the help of Smucker, Kreider recounts the circumstances around Alec’s illness, crime, and confession. It is as heartbreaking as you would imagine : a father who desperately wants to help his son treat his depression soon realizes that it’s too late. The unthinkable happens, and two families and an entire community are left grieving.
The writing is raw and honest. Kreider’s heart for his son and the Haines family is apparent in every sentence and carefully constructed scene. (If you haven’t already, you should read Smucker’s blog post about the three year process it took to create the manuscript.) But I won’t lie; though I couldn’t put this book down, Refuse to Drown is a hard read. The reality of the situation – the gruesome murders, Alec’s illness and guilt, the life sentence – is absolutely gut-wrenching. I am being completely honest when I say that the story kept me awake at night.
Even so, I’m glad I read it. Refuse to Drown is a hard read, but an important one, because Kreider is offering the side of the story that is so rarely told. Do we need the victims’ stories? Of course. But what we’re all afraid to admit is that we need the other stories too, of the criminal, the sick, the grieving other half of the truth. We need the story of the father who loved his son and tried to help him, and who, when the unthinkable happened, did the right thing for the sake of his son, the other family, the community, and now for you and me.
There’s a small passage that I found especially telling, right after the reality of Alec’s actions come to light. Tim is so grieved by it that he doesn’t want to speak to Alec, but his fiance Lynn says something important.
“I had called him each and every night since he had been admitted to Philhaven. But on that night, I was disappointed, confused, violated – he had gone against everything I had taught him, everything I believed in.
‘If he was sick with cancer, would you call him?’ Lynn asked me. ‘This is no different. Tim, he’s not well. He needs you now just as much as he would with any other sickness.’” (p. 62)
We could talk all day about the very real differences between cancer and mental illness*, but we would be missing the point. The truth of mental illness is that without the usual cues and helpful symptoms that tell us when a person is sick and needs our help, conditions like depression are stigmatized. Kids like Alec are taught to see their struggle through a lens of morality instead of health. They feel isolated by it; they can’t articulate it. These are the circumstances that breed tragedy, whether it is suicide or homicide. For too many families, their loved ones’ mental health problems don’t become apparent until the circumstances are past the point of no return. How do we help those struggling with mental illness feel safe to admit that they’re not okay? How do we encourage them to get help before they bring harm to themselves or others? How do we make this “invisible” illness visible before it becomes a news headline? How do we bring about a justice that doesn’t only punish the person that committed the crime, but offer them healing for the illness that provoked it? Or do we really believe that locking away a mentally ill person and withholding treatment is justice?
In a dark room, Kreider’s words have flipped on the light that we may better see the whole story. He has turned the worst circumstances of his life into the best possible opportunity to help us ask the right questions. There are no easy answers, but maybe in talking about it and telling stories like this one, we can help one another find healing.
*Recommended reading : No One Brings Dinner When Your Daughter is An Addict (A father talks candidly about the difference in community support for his wife when she had breast cancer and their daughter when she was diagnosed with bipolar and treated for addictions. Lynn’s words reminded me of this.)