Dan Hanson's book, Room for J, begins with this jarring sentence: "It's been almost ten years since our son Joel declared that he was Jesus in another life, and is therefore God." After a psychotic break when he was 20 years old, Joel was initially diagnosed as bi-polar and then schizophrenic.
Schizophrenia is surprisingly common — afflicting over 1 in 100 American adults — and it is not usually the "split personality" disorder that makes for riveting books and movies. But it is an affliction of division and isolation in the deepest sense, and it often has an aspect of religious or supernatural delusion. In the words of psychiatrist R.D. Laing, "schizoid" refers to an individual whose experience is split in two ways: there is a rent in his relation to the world and in his relation with himself. "Such a person is not able to experience himself 'together with others' or 'at home in the world…'"
The title of Dan Hanson's book refers to what he and his wife Sue have taken, correspondingly, as their primary challenge: to live vigilantly with the practical details of Joel's illness; and at the same time to imagine and work for a world in which there is "room for J." This has meant treating Joel's illness, under civil commitment if necessary, while fighting for his sense of personality and dignity. It has meant navigating the territory of anti-psychotic pharmacology with both reverence and caution. And it has meant, ultimately, accepting Joel on his own terms so long as he is not hurting himself or others. This includes the one constant of his belief system, maintained across the years and through all the medications, that he is God. Paradoxically, the Hansons have found, like some other families, that once they stopped trying to talk Joel out of his delusions — what he perceives as his truth — they could stay in relationship with him and become his touchstone to reality.
Our conversation goes to interesting places. We speak of how the Hansons whole idea of what it means to be human has been altered by living with a beloved younger son who at a certain point in his life seemed quite definitively to become someone else. Their other son once described what had happened to his brother as an "invasion of the soul snatchers." The Hansons also reflect movingly, creatively, about how their understanding of the nature of religious experience has been challenged by living with a person who believes that he is God. "As you might imagine," Dan writes, "it is hard to take God to church with you." He notes, with the wonder and humor he has learned to cultivate alongside fear and heartbreak, that Joel sits in a service of worship quietly blessing the congregation and blessing all the words that are spoken.
Joel himself has written a manuscript titled "A Guide to the Universe," in which incoherent sentences alternate with stunning, jarring language, such as this: "I know, and it has been said, that ignorance is the opposite of love. There is no love in ignorance. I believe that! If one ignores something they cannot understand it ever, for they are pushing, sometimes, good things that are necessary to better their lives away from them."
The Hansons stand in some awe of Joel's complex beliefs and philosophies, but they reject any attempt to romanticize his condition. They are frank and clear-eyed about the danger of this illness. But their most provocative suggestion, between the lines, comes as a natural consequence of their own very personal struggle to accept their son and love him as he is now. In a society with "room for J," Joel would be seen first as a man, not a schizophrenic, indeed a beloved person with an unusual perspective on life and the rest of us. Our modern ability to diagnose and classify, the Hanson's story suggests, stands in some tension with our emerging cultural value of diversity. They offer no easy or fearless resolution to this tension. But in pointing it out, they propose that we cultivate a fuller and more demanding imagination about the virtue of human difference.