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Elyn Saks and the Power of Romance in Taming Schizophrenia

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When we hear the word "schizophrenic," the first person who usually comes to mind is someone like Jared Loughner, who is suspected in the murder of six people in Tucson a year ago. Yet studies show that schizophrenics and others with severe mental illness are more likely to be the victims, than the perpetrators, of violent crime.

Not only are the vast majority of schizophrenics law-abiding citizens, many of them hold down good jobs and function at a high level, though few have achieved the laurels of Elyn Saks.

On Saturday, March 10, Saks, a professor of law and psychiatry at USC, gave the keynote address at Loyola Marymount University at the 50th anniversary gala for the Airport Marina Counseling Service. Saks praised AMCS for its commitment to treatment and its sliding scale policy in which it never turns away a consumer for economic reasons. AMCS treats 400 patients per week from the Westside, South Bay and other areas of Los Angeles.

A world-class intellect, Saks was valedictorian of her class at Vanderbilt. She studied at Oxford as a Marshall Scholar, graduated with honors from Yale Law School, and in recent years received a Ph.D. in psychoanalysis. She is a recipient of a MacArthur "Genius" grant, which she has used to set up a think tank at USC, and she is the author of the memoir, The Center Cannot Hold: My Journey Through Madness.

Saks will be holding a symposium at her think tank on March 22 and 23. The subject this year is psychotropic medication and the law, and that is perfectly fitting given the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals' recent ruling that Jared Loughner must be forced to take his medication.

Medication, as I have written in the past, has helped to stabilize me when I was ill and diagnosed with schizophrenia. When I was off my meds for perhaps a week in late January of 1999, I became unhinged and thought I would be assassinated and blamed for a series of murders sweeping the nation.

As the Yeatsian title to her book suggests, Saks has also known a time when her life became unhinged, when she seemed to lose control to forces greater than herself.

And yet, when one sees Saks in person and hears her speak with her humorous asides, deft comic timing and brilliant recall of her psychotic breaks, one wants to tell her that the center did indeed hold.

Three years ago, when I first met Saks, I wrote that Saks' memoir "calls to mind the poetry of the Romantics more than it does a tale about an apocalyptic time when 'the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.' In the book, Saks' romance with her husband, Will, shines as clearly as the poppies she views in the Antelope Valley on one of their first dates."

At the gala event on March 10, Saks was accompanied by her husband, Will Vinet, whom she met at USC and who sat by an Apple laptop computer, presenting graphics as she gave her talk. One of the graphics he showed was a photograph of a smiling Saks sitting amidst the poppies on that early date. Saks recounted that, after Vinet gave her a "long, lingering kiss," she remarked, "This is even better than getting an article published," a remark that elicited a number of laughs on Saturday night.

When Saks spoke of her time at Yale Law School, Vinet, whose graphics often display a witty side, showed an image not of a gargoyle but of a robed figure sculpted on one of the Gothic buildings in New Haven. Despite its presence on the law building, this robed figure with a bemused expression on its face resembled Friar Tuck, more than a judge.

At the conclusion of the talk, Vinet constructed a graphic out of the heart from the opening of "I Love Lucy" with his name and that of Saks inside it.

This gets to the essence of recovery, the need to form strong, loving relationships with people whom you trust. I know this too from my own experience with my wife, Barbara, who has stayed with me through my bouts of psychosis.

Hopefully, the next time we all hear the word "schizophrenic" mentioned, we will think not of Jared Loughner but of Elyn Saks and the many others like her, who fight on every day through the power of love, courage and imagination.