By Marvin Ross
My Father, Fortune Tellers and Me: A Memoir, is a book that should be mandatory reading for all counsellors in training, psychologists, social workers, psychiatrists and anyone who is working with or involved with families of those with schizophrenia – particularly untreated or treatment resistant schizophrenia.
Eufemia Fantetti, in telling the story of her family and her mother’s treatment resistant illness, has provided us with the full horrible extent of the complete destructive power of this illness. I can’t think of anything that depicts so vividly the impact on the family but the book also gives us more than that – family love and resilience. The book also demonstrates our total failure as a society to help care for people who are that sick.
Eufemia’s father had a pretty good life as a 30’s something Italian immigrant in Toronto – single, good job and living in a vibrant city with a large Italian subculture when he returned to his home town to take an arranged bride, a second cousin, years younger than him. Eufemia opens the book with a wedding photo of her parents in front of the statue of St Anthony of Padua holding the baby Jesus who, Eufemia says, is waving ciao to someone in the church.
Her father she describes as unsure of himself having only seen his bride twice before that day and he had never spoken to her. She points to her mother, Lucia, with Jordan almonds that symbolize health, wealth, happiness, fertility and longevity “My folks scored two out of five”. Married life continued in Toronto and soon Eufemia came along.
Lucia became increasingly more erratic as the years went on and so the family went for a long stay to Italy where it was hoped that she could get medical help. Once her treatment with an Italian doctor started, her father returned to Canada leaving Eufemia with Italian relatives. Lucia quickly stopped taking her medication and eventually, mother and daughter returned to Toronto.
Of course, the bizarre behaviour continued and often Eufemia was the brunt of the mother’s anger and physical abuse. At one point, a little girl in the neighbourhood had drowned in an accident and Lucia took Eufemia to the visitation against her father’s wishes. Visitations freak me out as they are not part of my cultural upbringing and I’ve never been comfortable standing around with a cup of tea making small talk while grandpa lies dead a few feet away. Imagine what it must be like for a young child especially when the departed is another child?
Lucia drags Eufemia to view the body and, if memory serves, makes her touch the little girl. She then gets in the line and introduces the grieving mother to her own daughter who she describes as the light of her life. This causes the departed’s mother to start howling in anguish and the two leave.
Later, Lucia goes to the factory where her husband works and takes his car in order to drive Eufemia to school. After dropping Eufemia off, she plows into the back of a truck and takes off, puts the car in the garage and says nothing. That evening, the damage is discovered and the father calls the police to report it. The police arrive quickly as they had been out looking for the hit and run driver but Lucia was in church so they come back later.
With all the times that Lucia spent in church, I have to wonder why no priest ever realized she was in need of medical help and suggested it. It was mainly the police who did and, after taking their report from Lucia, the officers parting advice to the family was to take her for medical help. It was because of that suggestion that Lucia was diagnosed with schizophrenia.
The diagnosis did not lead to any improvement and Lucia continued to terrorize the family often smashing the house and inflicting abuse on Eufemia. There were countless encounters with the police, charges, restraining orders and, at one point, a police officer arrived and gave Eufemia’s father the business card of an Italian social worker so that he could get help. The cop said “sir, you cannot continue to live like this”.
Eufemia regularly saw a counsellor to help her through and the best advice she was given was to graduate from high school and to go to university as far away from Toronto as possible. Eufemia moved to Victoria, BC and lived on the west coast for many years while trying to help her father as best she could. Eufemia’s father endured until the stress of his life took its own toll on him and he had his own mental collapse.
It eventually took him four years to divorce his wife in a proceeding that his lawyer told him was the most complex of his 30 years practice as a lawyer. Ten years ago, Eufemia moved back to Toronto and she and I were introduced by our mutual friend, Susan Inman (and Bridgeross author of After Her Brain Broke). I was somewhat familiar with the story in the book but not the full details and always hoped that she would write of her experiences. I’m delighted she has and the book exceeds all expectations I had for it.
Eufemia often posts conversations with her father whom she calls Pappy on Facebook and the love and affection shines through along with Pappy’s optimism and good sense:
My dad insists that the Lord watched out for him – is certain the biblical sky dignitary dealt the cards for the game of Scopa my father played throughout his life.
“And if I didn’t marry the woman who ruined my life” she quotes her father saying, “I wouldn’t have you. I got what I wanted in this world: someone I could talk to. I prayed for someone reasonable and I got you.”
Words escape me!
Going back to the police, Eufemia states that “in a fair and kind society, police wouldn’t be tasked with the role of front-line mental health workers. We wouldn’t close our hearts to the suffering of others. We wouldn’t blame people for their illnesses…..”
At one point after her return to Toronto, Eufemia goes to visit her mom who is under the care of the Provincial Public Guardian and Trustee housed in a nice one bedroom apartment. Eufemia notices that all her blister packs of pills are months out of date and so decided to take Lucia to the doctor’s office for her monthly anti-psychotic injection.
The pleasant nurse points out that “we have not seen you for awhile Lucia”. And my reply is why do they not ensure that she does get her monthly shot and make sure that she is taking the meds in her blister pack? Should their job not also be to ensure that the vulnerable patients under their care at least get the medication they are supposed to?
And a final word about Eufemia. Her story collection, A Recipe for Disaster & Other Unlikely Tales of Love (Mother Tongue Publishing) was runner up for the Danuta Gleed Literary Award and won the F.G. Bressani Prize for short fiction. A recipient of the Commonwealth Broadcasting Award, she is a graduate of The Writer’s Studio and holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Guelph. Her work has appeared in the Globe and Mail, Event Magazine, and The New Quarterly. She teaches at Humber College and lives in Toronto.
I cannot recommend her book strongly enough.
My Father, fortune-Tellers, & Me By Eufemia Fantetti, Mother Tongue Press ISBN-13: 978-1896949758