'How I wonder how they are'

A Seattle MD makes a courageous documentary, showing at STIFF this week, about her father's estrangement from his family, owing to schizophrenia, and its toll on the families.

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A scene from 'Unlisted'

A Seattle MD makes a courageous documentary, showing at STIFF this week, about her father's estrangement from his family, owing to schizophrenia, and its toll on the families.

This week the Seattle True International Film Festival (STIFF) will feature local physician Delaney Ruston’s Unlisted: A Story of Schizophrenia, a film about her father, who was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia shortly after she was born. At the time, Richard Ruston was a graduate student in English at Berkeley. During his wife’s pregnancy the couple was evicted from apartments five times because among other things he’d climb telephone poles and scream at people from his perch. Her parents divorced when Delaney was a baby.

Still, this father adored his daughter and tried to stay in touch with her. Richard’s parents told her that he depended on her presence in his life to give him a sense of stability, but Delaney never knew whether he’d quietly play chess with her during one of her visits or pace around his apartment fuming that CIA agents were spying on him. Sometimes he’d show up at her school and yell her name through the fence, humiliating her and scaring her classmates, until the principal emerged to quiet him down.

Years later when Delaney was a medical student he’d cruise the Stanford campus frantically asking for her. By then she was old enough to seek help for her father, but a stunted mental health system frustrated every attempt to do more than witness his disintegration. After graduating from medical school Delaney unlisted her phone number and moved to Seattle without telling her father her new address, hoping that occasional visits to him in L.A. would keep him from coming north to look for her.

Yet he was on her mind as she tended her patients at Pike Market Medical Clinic, many with mental illnesses, many suffering in isolation because the sufferers were disconnected from their families. And when her young son started asking questions about the grandfather he’d never met, she wondered whether hiding from her father’s pain had been a good idea. Unlisted documents her efforts at reviving her relationship with her dad after ten years of considerable distance.

In the film Richard is a charming, funny, convivial man in his 60s, doing well on a new regimen of medications because five years ago, after four years on a waiting list, he finally was able to move into a housing complex with on-site support services for people with mental illnesses. He was a handsome man in his youth, with a face in the film that would closely resemble Norman Mailer’s at 80 if Mailer’s dentist had specialized in extractions and tooth darkening. There’s a framed portrait of a smiling George W. Bush in Richard’s apartment even though he’d been a lifelong Democrat, which he cheerfully explains to his daughter: “I became a Republican after Al Gore hired the wrong lawyers in Florida.”

This is a man who might start reciting a Shakespeare sonnet at the mention of love, though with a wink at Delaney he’ll smuggle “concubines” into “Let me not to the marriage of true minds” because it happens to rhyme. A stroll on the Santa Monica Pier with his daughter prompts him to mangle the start of Arnold’s “Dover Beach” with his special verbal torques. Passages from an unpublished novel that he wrote over the course of many years, quoted in voice-over, move with the kaleidoscopic elisions of the schizophrenic mind into arresting moments, as when something “vanishes as silently as the insects of the night.” A master at chess, Richard gently kvetches and twinkles at his daughter’s inept plays on the board.

Yet this is a man who wasn’t invited to his daughter’s graduations from high school, from Cornell, or from Stanford Medical School, and he wasn’t invited to her wedding. As he reminds Delaney of this series of rebuffs, one by one, with the camera alternating between close-ups of the father’s frustrated sorrow and of the daughter’s cool steady gaze, he musters a crooked grin to make light of his losses. “What,” he laughs finally, “does an invitation look like?” In such scenes our sympathies almost always lie with the father, even though we know that his harrowing disruptions of his daughter’s life are part of what turned her into a wary, guarded woman — “thick-skinned,” as she describes herself.

The story centers on Delaney’s hesitant but stubborn weaving, through undefended encounters with her father, various relatives, and her own heart, of a bond with her father that could endure. Making the documentary took enormous courage on her part. She’s making a plea for better understanding of mental illness and improved public policy, but she’s not oblivious to the fact that through most of the film she comes across as walled off and remote. Her way of connecting with her father is to act as his doctor. Yet in several very touching moments it’s he who makes sense of her, not the other way around.

I don’t mean to romanticize Richard in a way unintentionally encouraged by such narratives as this one. Human beings are a stereotyping species, so when a film presents us with a brilliant person who has schizophrenia, “brilliant” quickly becomes “what people with schizophrenia are.” In The Soloist Nathaniel Anthony Ayers is a classical musician so talented that in his youth he was accepted to Juilliard. The Richard Ruston of Unlisted wrote the draft of a novel so amazing I wish I could call him up to say, Please can I help you edit your book for publication? Each of these men just happened to come down with paranoid schizophrenia while attending one of America’s premier schools instead of while making widgets. Most people suffering from this disease are ordinary individuals.

However, they’re all someone’s son or daughter. Richard Ruston’s untreated illness separated him from his mother, his wife, a second wife, two daughters, a devoted sister, a loving nephew, a son-in-law, and two grandchildren — the family members we encounter in the film. If during all the years after Richard was diagnosed he had lived in special housing with on-site mental health services — social workers, psychiatrists, support groups — instead of here and there (and on the streets in between), his family might have been able to stay connected with him in a durable network of supportive relationships. He might have finished his book. He might have been able to manage gainful employment.

But lacking a support system, for more than 30 years Richard periodically stopped taking his meds because he hated their side effects of grogginess, tremors, and diminished libido and thought he didn’t need them anyway. Like half of the people with schizophrenia, he didn’t believe he had the disease. What kept him on his meds and in treatment during the last years of his life was supportive housing that let him develop stable, trusting relationships with his doctors and spend peaceful time with members of his family who weren’t too exhausted or traumatized by his symptoms during the years when he had no care.

In short, although someone with schizophrenia doesn’t have a “split personality,” something does get split up by this disease. It’s the schizophrenic person’s family. Delaney’s half-sister, Bonnie, remembers writing a story called “I Want My Daddy” when she was little, but as she grew up his psychotic episodes were so distressing she cropped his image out of her wedding photos. Not until Delaney herself was almost 40 could she begin to relax into being her dad’s daughter. Richard says he often imagined his two faraway girls as stars in the night sky and chanted to himself, “How I wonder how they are.”

Then the father went farther away than the daughters ever went. I won't reveal the ending, but shortly after both of Richard’s healthcare providers at his housing complex left to take jobs elsewhere, he went off his meds and disappeared. Perhaps the simultaneous breaking off of two longstanding personal attachments in a life that had so few of them made him angry or prompted despair. But charming as ever, he smiled at the last person who saw him.

Unlisted won a STIFFY for Most Compelling Documentary. An affecting film, delightful despite the darkness of its subject, it has an unforgettable character at its center. The production’s homemade, slightly tentative quality only strengthens its authenticity. The next screening is 7 pm this Wednesday (June 10) at Central Cinema, 1411 21st Ave. Tickets.


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