Schizophrenic. Killer. My Cousin.

It's insanity to kill your father with a kitchen knife. It's also insanity to close hospitals, fire therapists, and leave families to face mental illness on their own.

child in rocking chair
William Brinson for Reader’s Digest

The thing that struck me when I first met my cousin Houston was his size. On the other side of the visitors’ glass, he looked surprisingly small, young for his 22 years. The much more remarkable thing about him turned out to be his vocabulary, vast and lovely, lyrical almost—until it came to an agitated or distracted halt. He seemed altogether unlike a person who had recently murdered someone.

The symptoms displayed by Houston in the year preceding this swift and horrific tragedy have since been classified as “a classic onset of schizophrenia.” At the time, it was just an alarming mystery. Houston had been attending Santa Rosa Junior College in Northern California, living with his mom, and playing guitar with his dad when he became withdrawn and depressed. He slept all day, his band broke up, and suddenly he had no friends. His dad, Mark, and his mom, Marilyn, tried to help. They took him to a psychiatrist, who indicated possible schizoaffective disorder in his notes and put Houston on a changing regimen of antidepressants over the next eight months. It didn’t make any difference. He got fired from multiple jobs. Houston started stealing his mom’s Adderall. He said it helped him feel better. She kicked him out, and he moved in with his father.

“This was not my nephew,” Aunt Annette, Mark’s sister, says of Houston’s behavior then. “He was always solicitous and loving and talkative with me. Now he was anxious, quiet, said very strange things. I asked him how his therapy was going, and he said, ‘Terrible.’”

Toward the end of Houston’s devolution, he started having violent outbursts, breaking furniture; he tossed his mother across a room. Desperate, his parents called the psychiatrist repeatedly and asked what they should do. He told them to phone the police.

But Mark didn’t want to call them. For one, he didn’t think Houston was that dangerous—just upset, despairing. Also, he didn’t think three days of lockdown in a facility would make his son more stable. He was looking for a meaningful treatment plan. “Just let me handle it,” he told Marilyn.

So Mark didn’t call the police, and Houston didn’t get any additional help. He was having delusions, something about telepathic communications and aliens and wireless circuits. Something about his mom and dad—who’d been divorced for a long time—and teenage sister, Savannah, being in a sex ring. Something about an invisible friend, and that he’d been cutting himself to exorcise the evil, and also that Mark was poisoning him with lead and was the source of the evil.

And then Houston came home late one November night in 2011 and stabbed his father 60 times, with four different knives. By the time his sister came downstairs and called 911, it appeared Houston was trying to behead Mark.

Roughly one year after her brother’s death, still mourning, Aunt Annette spoke to me about Houston. She told me that even though what he did was “so heinous,” it didn’t mean that he wasn’t a victim. “Because I love this child. I was there at his birth. I know how sick he was.” And then she asked me to do the talking for a while because she was sobbing.

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Psychiatrist E. Fuller Torrey, MD, a researcher who specializes in schizophrenia and bipolar disorder and the founder of the Treatment Advocacy Center, a national nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting timely and effective treatment of severe mental illness, calls a crime like Houston’s “a predictable tragedy.” That’s what he’s also called many other shootings—at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, the movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, and Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut—as well as dozens of other recent homicides. The chances that a perpetrator of a mass shooting displayed signs of mental illness prior to the crime are one in two. Ten percent of U.S. homicides, Dr. Torrey estimates based on an analysis of studies, are committed by the untreated severely mentally ill—like my schizophrenic cousin. And, he adds, “I’m thinking that’s a conservative estimate.”

Obviously, many violent acts in our society are perpetrated by the “sane.” And most of the violence committed by the severely mentally ill is inflicted on themselves. Even in the range of schizophrenia narratives, which commonly end in suicide or dying on the streets, Houston’s took an extraordinarily terrible turn. But happy endings are getting harder for even the nonviolent mentally ill to come by. As states and counties pare back what few mental-health services remain, we’re learning that whether people who need help can get it affects us all.

Next: “Do whatever you have to do to get her in the car” »

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