The Story of My Book: Susan Vaught on Freaks Like Us
Susan Vaught tells us about how her work as a psychologist influenced her latest young adult novel, and about Frank, her loyal writing companion.
Frank is an African Grey – and yes, she’s a girl named Frank. Greys don’t mature until around age 10, and until that time there’s no way to determine gender short of a genetic test. We rescued her around age 9.5, and she was already very, very attached to her name, so when she laid her first egg, we didn’t change it!
She’s typically very interested in anything I do. Sometimes she takes a mood and gets determined to eat my headphones or pluck the keys off my keyboard. That’s when I engage in a sport I have dubbed Obstacle Writing. I suspect most authors don’t get as much fine motor exercise as I do when crafting, so I can’t complain.
I worked for many years in private practice as a psychologist, specializing in adolescents and adults with severe mental illness and/or brain injuries. During that time, I had the privilege of following many young people through the early course of disorders like schizophrenia, and the strength and determination they demonstrated always inspired and amazed me. Another thing that never failed to touch me was the perseverance and dedication of family members who worked to support them and lessen their struggles.
I wanted to write a novel with a main character battling schizophrenia for many years, but it was difficult to settle on a voice or style that readers might be able to relate to without shortchanging the effects of the hallucinations and thought disorder. It took me a long time to find the exact right character, and to craft a way to share his experiences that wouldn’t leave readers too confused or distanced from the realities of living with the disorder.
In the end, it was a photo that finally helped me get in touch with Jason Milwaukee, aka Freak, and finally create Freaks Like Us. I tried very, very hard to locate the source of the photo and get permission to use it, maybe even for the book cover – but alas, no luck. I couldn’t even use it in my book trailers, but I have it in my private wiki to refer to anytime I want to write in Jason’s voice.
My experiences as a psychologist fueled the character and allowed me to portray the hallucinations as accurately as I could. Many patients have shared or described their experiences to me, and I have had the good fortune of participating in virtual reality trainings that mimic these symptoms.
I’ve seen the kind of bullying that Jason experiences in school happen over and over again, and worked to stop it for the people I was treating. In my opinion, the disorder is burden enough without the massive social rejection and ostracizing that occurs, and I often wonder how much better off people with schizophrenia might be if the social devastation could be reduced or eliminated. The really sad part of this, to me, is that the Jasons of the world are less able than most kids to speak up when they face bullying and cruelty. Like Jason says, “Nobody listens to the alphabets.”
I hope readers will find Freaks Like Us, and dare to live a few hours of Jason Milwaukee’s difficult – but definitely not hopeless or wasted – life. If I’ve done my job, these brave readers will walk away with increased understanding and empathy, a willingness to speak against bullying when they see it, and hope that one day, we will find better cures and treatments for this devastating illness.
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