Written by Neha Bhattacharya

“Had all the adults around us assumed that we understood our mother’s behaviour? Were they trying to protect us? Or was my mother’s diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia so misunderstood and so taboo at that time that no one person could take a few moments to explain to us why our lives had been turned upside down?”

Among Silent Echoes, Page 88 

Very few books leave you feeling the way Phyllis Dyson’s Among Silent Echoes: A Memoir of Trauma and Resilience does. Thanks to its light and honest prose, I laughed along with Phyllis, wanted to climb trees with her, rated houses just as she did in the book, and made plans to go on adventures like she did in the picturesque Cariboo. I cried in my sleep because I could almost physically feel the pain she felt as I read the book. I lost count of the number of times I woke up in the middle of the night with the pillow cover soaked with tears and an aching heart.

The book pulled me into Phyllis’ story effortlessly, as if she and I were one… except we weren’t. There’s a towering wall of stigma between me and her that sets us apart and blinds me to such stories of families living with schizophrenia. In fusing both of us together, the book makes me glaringly aware of all the stigma that divides us. And herein lies Dyson’s powerful act of activism—it makes the reader witness how schizophrenia touches lives that are not much different from their own.  

Among Silent Echoes is a memoir, a coming-of-age story, and an honest record of one family’s journey to recognizing and accepting a loved one’s severe and persistent mental illness. Phyllis’ mother, Carolyn, lived with schizophrenia. But for Phyllis and her brother Ron, schizophrenia was a shadow, an apparition of which they knew nothing.

More often than not, the misinformation that exists in society and our unstable and faulty system pushes individuals with severe and persistent mental illness and their families to the margins. The stigma around mental illness prevented Phyllis and her brother from knowing and understanding their mother’s illness fully, but Phyllis’ story does a great job of uncovering all the things that were silenced, brushed under the carpet, or often went unacknowledged.

For me, the most powerful aspect of the book is that it tells us about the impact mental illness has on an entire family from the eyes of Phyllis—as a child. In its candor, the book reveals just how perplexing and overwhelming it is for young children to deal with the stress a lacking system puts on them. Owing to the stigma and lack of awareness around mental illness, a lot of people do not recognize and respond adequately to the needs of people with mental health problems.

This is blatantly visible in how Phyllis’ mom was treated by her family and society. The lack of knowledge about schizophrenia not only takes her children away from her; it also only allows her to see her children intermittently through the years. Things would have been different for Phyllis and her brother if there were opportunities available for her mom to lead a life where she received more compassion, empathy, and a stable system of care and treatment. 

As the book progresses, Phyllis shares with the reader both the changing dynamics of her family and how she adds and removes photos from her “Watch Me Grow” album because of these ebbs and flows. Whenever young Phyllis made an effort to add to her “family tree,” it broke my heart. Growing up, young kids make sense of their identity by looking towards their family and trying to understand their own family history. But the instability of Phyllis’ family tree made me wonder if marginalizing individuals with severe and persistent mental illness led to Phyllis and her brother growing up without fully understanding what was at the centre of their fragmented childhood.  

I cannot emphasize enough the need for more such heartfelt stories to come to the forefront. Phyllis ends the preface of the book with the hope that her story will help break silences and increase compassion for families living with severe and persistent mental illness. So I too will end this review with the same hope.

This book, its tender descriptions of Phyllis’ childhood shadowed by schizophrenia, and the struggles she faced trying to understand what was happening to her mother, help readers better understand that loving someone with schizophrenia is complex and hard. But it is this love and commitment of Phyllis and family members like her that ensure their loved ones living with schizophrenia are seen, recognized, and receive the best care possible. And together, we can fight off the stigma around schizophrenia.