Paul Gruchow was once one of the most renowned writers in Minnesota, poised for larger greatness.
He was a brilliant essayist occasionally referred to as a contemporary Thoreau, because he wrote extensively on nature and the culture of rural life in southern Minnesota. His published a series of books in the 1980s, after leaving his work as the editor of the Worthington Globe, that drew national attention. He was a popular college instructor, an in-demand speaker.
He was a man who had everything, then lost it all.
Not because he threw it away.
Only because he couldn’t, even with all his might, hold on.
Gruchow killed himself in 2004 at the age of 56 after a lifelong battle with crippling depression. His story may have died with him if it weren’t for Louis Martinelli, a longtime friend Gruchow entrusted with his entire collection of works.
Martinelli will speak Monday at The Book Shelf about Gruchow’s last work, a memoir, “Letters to a Young Madman.” He’s partnered with a local psychotherapist, Gary Flynn, because for Martinelli, publishing the book is not about furthering Gruchow’s legacy. It’s about finding a wide audience for a book that seeks to break the shackles of the stigma that surround mental illness.
As Gruchow wrote, in the closing pages: “We no longer believe, as we did 250 years ago, that the mentally ill are animals, but we are not yet ready to grant that they are fully human either.”
Martinelli, a graduate of Saint Mary’s University, met Gruchow in Northfield, Minn., in the 1990s. They found an instant connection. They were both writers, Gruchow an essayist, Martinelli a poet and playwright. And both familiar with suicide—Martinelli’s father had taken his own life.
Martinelli eventually moved to Cincinnati and Gruchow to Duluth after he lost his teaching job at a local college, but they stayed in touch. Gruchow quit writing and spent more than a decade in and out of institutions, on and off countless medications and therapies. At times he was broke and near-homeless. But in 2003 he had purchased a small house in Duluth, was walking regularly in the woods, the only effective therapy he had ever known.
And he was writing again. A memoir.
Martinelli would send him a poem or two from a collection on Vincent van Gogh he was working on. Gruchow would respond with a few pages from his book. He was troubled by his structure, loose and disorganized with no chronology, just a series of vignettes that criss-crossed his experiences with a depression so crippling he at times could not rise from bed for days and left him repeatedly at a loss to understand why.
Martinelli told him to stick with it. In a matter of months the pages became a finished collection of letters, part story, part philosophy, part meditation, together a book of prayers lonesome and desperate and yet hopeful still.
Gruchow’s book fits nowhere in the repository of literature produced by troubled artists. It does not romanticize mental illness. It does not dramatize the cycle of driving away and abandoning loved ones. It throws no pity party and offers no soul-searching. There are no witch hunts to discover buried childhood traumas, no blaming family members or friends, no lingering descriptions of experiences long regretted.
Gruchow, having spent more than four decades failing to cure his illness, was no longer interested in the why. Instead he chose to live deeply in the present moments of his depression, embrace even the darkest recollections simply to offer a story to fellow sufferers, to allow them the possibility to believe they are not alone.
To believe in that, he wrote, was hope itself.
He devotes large sections of the book to the time he spent in institutions. It’s an unsparing look at the modern mental-health system, how it marginalizes and infantilizes patients, strips them of all sense of humanity.
He witnesses moments where patients are heavily medicated with little explanation and literally treated like babies, confined to caged beds and clad in diapers and spoken to in babbled instructions. They walk stark hallways, drift off in front of televisions while heavily sedated, work on craft projects with crayons and safety scissors. He watches as he and others lose all sense of adulthood and independence.
But the book’s tone doesn’t match its subject matter. Gruchow writes lightly, with humor, a sense of levity. His life is a struggle but he doesn’t see it at particularly special, just equivalent to those he meets who suffer from similar disease.
And he finds hope. In fellow patients, who look and act just like him, led normal lives just like him. In the idea that while the mental-health system is broken, the people who populate it are generally good and can be led to fix it.
Gruchow completed the memoir in early 2004. Martinelli and his wife had spent the previous Christmas with him and had found him ebullient, ready to publish, ready to write more, ready to live.
Gruchow killed himself a month later.
He overdosed on the prescription medication he said at best left him not unhappy but far from happy, the difference, he wrote, between being able to speak and being able to speak eloquently.
Martinelli said he was both surprised and not at all, that he might have misunderstood the reason his friend wrote the book.
“I wonder looking back on it whether it wasn’t some last will and testament,” he said. “He was coming to grips with the fact that he may not ever get on the other side of this.”
Still, Martinelli said, the book still carries a powerful message of life, despite the fact that Gruchow took his. All Gruchow wanted to do, he said, was reach others who suffered as he did.
“However our lives end, happily, tragically, I think as writers that’s what we’re trying to do,” he said. “We try to give the gift of hope through a world that struggles increasingly to find light. And I don’t know any people who struggle so hard to find light in their life as people who are seriously mentally ill.”
Martinelli spent the next seven years editing Gruchow’s memoir and searching for a publisher. He finally found one, Levins, based in Minneapolis. The book was released in 2012 and has received acclaim, though because Gruchow was not well-known outside Minnesota, Martinelli has struggled to find a broader receptive audience. Some book readings near his Cincinnati home, he said, have drawn three people. Others, four.
Martinelli understands that Gruchow’s work is more than a memoir. It’s a rallying cry for change. So when he holds readings, he often includes a mental-health professional, like he is in Winona on Monday. And instead of hoping nurses and doctors come to him to learn from Gruchow’s book and message, he’s taking it to them. He’s speaking to a conference of psychiatric nurses at the Mayo Clinic later this month.
The idea is to transform the system. To return the humanity stolen from the mentally ill, to give them freedom and authority in their own treatment. It’s what Gruchow would have wanted, Martinelli said.
Gruchow was irritated when his writing wasn’t understood. But he was deeply hurt when his illness wasn’t. And, unlike his writing, it never was.
“I don’t think we’ll have a truly successful mental health system until the mentally ill become genuine partners in their own healing,” Gruchow wrote.
“And the only way to do that is to make them healers, rather than merely the objects of healing.”