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THE THING THAT STRUCK ME when I first met my cousin Houston was his size. He wasn’t much taller than me, if at all, and was slight of frame. 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. In any case, all things considered, he seemed altogether extremely unlike a person who had recently murdered someone.
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The symptoms displayed by Houston (in my family, a cousin of any degree is simply “a cousin”; technically, Houston is my third) 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Houston had been attending Santa Rosa Junior College, living with his mom, playing guitar with his dad, when he became withdrawn and depressed. He slept all day; his band had broken up, and suddenly he had no friends. His dad, Mark, who had once struggled with depression and substance abuse but was now a pillar of the recovery community, and his mom, Marilyn, tried to help, took him to a psychiatrist. Houston didn’t have a drinking problem, but he mostly stopped drinking anyway. He didn’t smoke pot anymore, or even cigarettes. His psychiatrist indicated possible schizoaffective disorder in his notes, but put Houston on a changing regimen of antidepressants over the next eight months. It didn’t make any difference. Houston had started stealing his mom’s Adderall. He said it helped him feel better. He got fired from multiple jobs. Marilyn kicked him out, and he moved in with Mark.
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“This was not my nephew,” my 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. He would say things that seemed not to come from him. 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 mom across a room. Desperate now, Mark and Marilyn called the psychiatrist repeatedly and asked what to do. He told them to call the police.
“You can call the police,” the deputy director of Sonoma County’s National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), David France, said when I asked him what options are available to a parent whose adult child appears to be having a mental breakdown. “The police can activate resources,” like an emergency psych bed in a regular hospital, or transport and admission to a psychiatric hospital in a county that, unlike Sonoma, has one. But only if the police decide your child is a danger to himself or others can they arrest him with the right to hold him for three days—what in California is called a 5150, after the relevant section of state law. Otherwise you can be turned away for lack of space even if your loved one is willing to be admitted, or be left no good options if they’re not. Ninety-two percent of the patients in California’s state psych hospitals got there via the criminal-justice system.
The photographs that accompany this story are part of photographer Jeremy Harris’ ongoing project “American Asylums: Moral Architecture of the 19th Century.” See a video interview with Jeremy here.
But Mark didn’t want to call the police. For one, he didn’t think Houston was dangerous, just upset, despairing. Also, Mark read the news. The Santa Rosa cops had killed two mentally ill men they’d been called to intervene with in the last six years, one case resulting in a federal civil rights suit. This is not a problem unique to Santa Rosa—or to greater Sonoma County, which in 2009 paid a $1.75 million settlement to the family of a mentally ill 16-year-old whom sheriff’s deputies shot eight times. There’s no comprehensive data yet, but mental illness appears to be a factor in so many arrest-related deaths that the Justice Department has considered adding mental-health status to its national database of such deaths. Just last year, for example, the DOJ found the Portland, Oregon, police department had a “pattern or practice of using excessive force…against people with mental illness,” including eight shootings in 18 months and the beating to death of an unarmed man in 2006.
Anyway, Mark didn’t think three days of lockdown in a mental facility would make his son less unstable. He was looking for a meaningful treatment plan, not to rustle Houston through emergency services. “All those kids get shot by the police,” he told Marilyn. “Just let me handle it.”
So Mark didn’t call the police, and Houston didn’t get any additional help. Ten days before all the really bad things happened, Annette came out to visit from Ohio. “Honey,” she said to her nephew, “something’s going on with you, babe. Either something’s happened to you, or you’re not sharing something. I’m really, really worried that something’s going on.” She says he turned his head and looked at her eerily and said, “Maybe I’ll tell you about it sometime.” She says, “It didn’t even sound like him.”
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