Medicine men

By JAMES PARKER  |  November 28, 2008

He's had his own problems in that department. "I have a variety of mental illnesses that I suffer from," says Wright, "including not just bipolar disorder but schizoid-affective disorder, which means intermittent periods of schizophrenia-like disorders — delusions and paranoia, inability to leave the house." Shrinks, he says, value him for his Promethean ability to return from such states and make a report. "I tell people this, but no one believes me: when I lived in Everett, there was a period when I didn't leave my house for two years, except to be driven to the doctor."

There's nothing of self-pity in these professions. Wright is an old hand — he knows meds, institutions, the taste of strange rooms. "He's not in the hospital now/the hospital's in him," begins his poem "Self-Portrait at 40," from 2000's The Beforelife (Knopf). Does it bother him to talk about this stuff? "Not at all." He grins. "A friend of mine once said to me, 'The cat's out of the bag, Franz — everyone knows you're crazy.' "

Wright is the man to whom reality presents itself with the queer challenge of a hallucination, and who has been obliged therefore to live by the light of his heart. The adjective most frequently used in his poetry might be "unendurable." Still, he regards himself as one of the rescued. Marriage (to the translator and writer Elizabeth Oehlkers) has saved him, he says, as did sobriety, and also something that happened in September 1999.

"I think people do reach a point where nothing that they've depended on works anymore," he says, "and they discover a sense of the divine as the one place that continues to welcome us when there is nowhere else to turn. And one day very suddenly, one afternoon, I had an experience that I can't describe, but an experience of the reality of things that I'd formerly admired as beautiful literature, beautiful ethical structures. I suddenly had a sense of the literal reality of Christ's spirit in the world."

He was baptized Catholic in 2000. "To me, the Church is not the bizarre anachronistic hierarchy of bishops and popes and all that shit — it's a weekday mass where there's like 10 people there, and you know that each one of those people is there out of some deep need and hunger. And I find that very comforting and I identify with those people and I don't care what anybody says about it."

At his church, Wright spotted a notice appealing for volunteers for Arlington's Center for Grieving Children, an independent nonprofit bereavement service for children, teens, and families. After what he calls "some surprisingly rigorous training," he began working there in 2000, continuing for the next seven years.

"These kids," he says, "suddenly they're in a situation where they're having to experience something radically different from their peers at school — they're sometimes even shunned by them, because of this horror children feel for the idea of losing their parents. It's amazing to watch how rapidly some of them progress in this process of grieving. This grotesque conception of closure that we have . . . everybody knows that when somebody close to you dies, whether you like it or not, you continue to have a relationship with them. And the kids are encouraged to cultivate that — they write journals, letters, and so on. It's a beautiful place."

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