Stephen Trimble’s 25th book is called The Mike File. The sound of the word mike trips certain thoughts: a sound-amplifying device; the beginning of the name Michaelangelo; that Mike is a nickname for a boy’s name common around the world. Memories: what-to-name-your-baby books tell new parents the name Michael means angel.
Yet The Mike File also sounds like a worrying detective’s file: a compilation of details about someone who perished or vanished. Because it’s only a first name, you guess the file must be about a child, a victim, not an adult criminal, and it’s being accumulated by someone who will not stop until a mystery is solved.
Soon you learn MIKE is the word written on a file Stephen Trimble’s parents maintained, and kept, for almost three quarters of a century, about their son, Trimble’s long-dead older brother Michael: “a sheaf of decades-old court and medical records, yellowing newsprint and letters from Mike.”
The book opens with listening in: Stephen Trimble is eight, Mike is very angry and 14. Mike, pre-mental hospital, is singing the song he keeps re-singing throughout the book, that no one loves him, everyone wants to get rid of him, everyone loves his little brother, but not him. “You put me in school with retards … everyone yells at me … tells me I’m too much trouble. Messed up. Sick.” Trimble also overhears his brother Mike telling his mother he overheard both his parents talking about “sending me away.” Horribly, this confrontation does not allay Mike’s anxieties but, rather, becomes the tipping point: “…after Mike’s searing confrontation with our mother, my parents, at wit’s end, admitted him to Colorado Psychopathic Hospital for evaluation. Mike never spent a night at home again.”
It is a record of disturbances, and a song. A song everyone in the family – “my fragile raconteur of a mother, my kind, fierce scientist father,” and anxious eight-years-younger Stephen Trimble still hear as an undercurrent through their lives, until Mike dies at age 33 in a care home for patients released from mental hospitals.
And after. Trimble eventually fully reads all of what is in the “Mike File,” which survived somehow among his 95-year-old father’s belongings. Fate’s involved: Trimble’s mother had attempted to throw out the “Mike File.” But Trimble’s father (stepfather to Mike) salvages it:
That he salvaged and safeguarded the file shouldn’t have surprised me.
My father was a scientist to his core and made sense of his world by organizing facts and constructing timelines … he documented his family as he documented his geologic research and fieldwork.
When I finally unpacked Dad’s archives, the clasped manila envelope surfaced again…
The “Mike File” feels incendiary.
The book’s song is: growing loops of frustration and fear, trying to climb a glass mountain, but slipping down again: the opinion by modern psychiatrist Kieran McNally that schizophrenia was and still is “a wastebasket diagnostic classification;” the photographs of a much-happier-when-young, but angrier-as-he-grew-older brother Mike (Mike’s letters to his mother, full of vitriol, spill into tones of righteousness at the unfairness of his misery. In one letter, Mike calls the state hospital he is in “a racket all the doctors are in on.”) Brief folk-lilts lift the tune, as family visits with Mike almost go well; but those lilts wither as you read Trimble’s observation that his mother, in the car, after each of these visits, “cries all the way home.”
Fading drumbeats, as Mike’s attempts at being employed fail, as did all hopes, eventually, that Mike could ever improve as a student. (Teachers’ notes about him are a list of negatives.) Mike seems to have no place, and though Mike loves listening to rock’n’roll, he can’t find or make the music he needs, which could soothe or heal him (he, becoming older, increasingly Shakespeare’s “savage beast”) or could begin to also heal or soothe his family.
Trimble, an award-winning photographer, has included wonderful visual things in this book. There is Trimble’s careful signature at the end, with all the dignity of a witness’s, attesting that all he has said is true; a laboriously-handwritten list his older brother once made, favorite radio tunes from when Mike was just becoming a teenager. And many family photographs, which have an uncanny beauty: a delightfully squirrelly, spectacled Stephen Trimble much smaller than his brother, his beautiful beaming dark-haired mother, their bright-eyed, cheerful father. And Mike, looking as if he’s traveled from very far away, weighed down by a mysterious sort of jet lag he can’t pull himself out of.
The chorus in this book, if not the negative notes from all his teachers and schools, is a very lonely chorus of one: Mike’s, in his letters to his mother, begging for happiness he can’t find: beautiful rage because they come from Mike’s sureness there must somehow, somewhere, be a proud life for him, which, cruelly, is being kept from him. Somehow even Mike’s telling his mother his misery is all her fault is beautiful: at root, it’s his almost-apology for having been born. But you also feel his mother’s pain. Mothers are not in charge of which one-in-a-million ovum burst from ovary will become an individual, after its impassioned travel down a fallopian tube. Still, Mike’s tune in these letters is not completely unlike the basic anguish-song of Oedipus, wishing he had never been born, and seems to be amplifying the misery contained in at least the title of one of Eugene O’ Neill’s plays, A Moon for the Misbegotten.
The author wants change: quoting experts, he says the reason we turn from the homeless on the street, or anyone we believe “crazy,” is — and he repeats it many times — primal fear. The only solution to all the secrecy and fear and shame, Trimble also says repeatedly, is empathy.
John F. Kennedy’s opinions, stated in speeches, about the evil of mental institutions, appear in this book. Kennedy, whose own sister Rosemary was famously hospitalized far away from her famous family most of her life until her death, as if on the moon, called for “the reliance on the cold mercy of custodial isolation” to end.
Trimble notes that young men avoiding service in Vietnam as conscientious objectors also objected to the “community service” they performed in mental hospitals. They exposed the horrors of “America’s concentration camps,” as they called them. Some described scenes similar to Ken Kesey’s in his massively popular novel, and later film, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.
Kennedy’s words, and the reports from the mental hospitals by the servicemen, Trimble writes, began change. Mental institutions and hospitals began to close.
But for the released there was no waiting, well-structured assistance, with living spaces, companionship, work. His older brother Mike becomes not living, but dying proof of this lack of a “safety net”: when he dies of a seizure at age 33, in a care home, he isn’t discovered until three days have passed. The care home either did not have his family’s names or address or telephone number, or did not bother to notify: the Trimbles only learned of Mike’s death when a visiting cousin carried in the newspaper from the Trimble’s driveway. The front-page story referred to Mike’s care home as a “rat-hole.” The care home operator’s newspaper-published excuse was the home he ran was so overwhelmed with duties and responsibilities he could not meet them; eventually, he only suffered a reprimand, and promised to take a roll call at breakfast. The conscientious objectors who called mental hospitals “concentration camps” also reported that hospital patients were massively overdosed with drugs; Trimble thinks it likely the seizures Mike was prone to, and died from, may have started as a reaction to such overmedication.
In a speech, Kennedy tried to right wrongs done to his sister Rosemary by speaking out against mental hospitals; but another speech he was much more famous for contained these words: “I believe that this nation should commit itself before this decade is out to landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to earth.” Are the mentally ill not, in their care homes, or in hospitals, in many ways en-mooned (marooned)? To most families even their loved one’s exile is frightening, creating an orbiting, distant, but still worrisome and frightening ghost. So, it isn’t odd the moon is where Kennedy wanted to send us to symbolically, vicariously, via speedy rockets. Kennedy’s passion about travel to the moon and back almost sounds like a plea to bring Mike and Rosemary and all the rest of the lonely ones populating the faraway hospital-moon, cold and empty and covered with rocks – back to Earth.
In The Mike File, Trimble, with the help of experts, makes a moon-launch of sorts for Mike. There’s a massive change of tone in chapter 7, as he and experts imagine all the details which would/could have made a much better world for Mike: dwellings and projects and interventions and acceptances, but most of all, a many-layered sort of Peace Corps of helpers, assistants, advisors and helpers ensuring Mike and others feel loved, noticed, important. And, peace-giving roles for his parents and his brother.
It’s even suggested, in these successful-redo-the-doomed-expedition-plans, that Mike and others like him could have shared/run a small music clubhouse, and Mike could have sometimes been in charge of its music playlist. Which brings us back to some of Trimble’s memories of Mike, early in his book:
I remember Mike playing music as we sat together on the living room floor and spun 45s on his pink-and-gray portable record player. Bill Haley and His Comets, Elvis Presley. I still have a binder of those singles – the sole physical artifact from Mike’s childhood, complete with Mike’s handwritten notes. I also can hear Mike warning me not to mess with his record player unless I was with him. This was fine by me … I was the little brother, he was the big brother. I had my plastic dinosaurs, he had his rock and roll.
“I’m too late,” Trimble does proclaim, almost at the end of his book; but in some ways he’s not. Though his brother cannot hear him, he has served as his brother’s almost angelic microphone, letting him, through the art of words, be heard. Instead of man touching fingers with God, in the Sistine Chapel, Trimble is reaching up to touch the hand of his exiled brother. And Trimble has become, in a way only writing can let you become, a parent: not only to Mike, but even to his parents, too. As well as a second-generation forensic scientist/detective searching for solutions. Too late? But what if not at all?
Consider, for a moment, how many individuals you’ve met who, when someone talks of doing something to honor someone gone, will reprimand them, this way: I believe in doing something while people are still alive. Those words sound good, right, at first, don’t they? But you hear a voice in the back of your head telling you those words are also precisely what an uncaring and preening liar – would be sure to say. In truth, love’s definition is that you care still, even when that person is no longer alive. It’s the declaration of true conscience; fully-sweet apology: true love.
The Mike File
Little Bound Books Essay
Rebecca Pyle is a writer and an artist with work in dozens of art/literary journals, in the United States and also in journals (in the English language) in Hong Kong and the U.K. and Northern Ireland, Belgium, India, France, and Germany. She graduated from the university the Wizard of Oz adored, the University of Kansas, where she studied art and lit. See rebeccapyleartist.com.