First-time author and Hermosa Beach resident Heidi Swan co-wrote her young adult novella "A Night in Jail" with her brother, Kirk Anderson.
But this is no fluffy teen romance; rather it’s a potent story based on her family’s real experience with Anderson’s schizophrenia, homelessness and drug use.
According to Swan, her brother went to jail 18 times.
“When Kirk got out of jail, became sober, was receiving psychiatric medication and living with our mother—who greatly helped to stabilize him—he and I began having conversations about what his life was like when he was in the throes of his illness. What he told me was horrible and fascinating all at once. For instance, he believed he had to live outside because he was like John the Baptist.”
She adds that “I realized how extraordinary it was to hear the accounts of someone who had survived this kind of horror. And how, with the benefit of medication and sobriety, he was able to reflect on his delusions which, for years, kept him huddled under a freeway, addicted to drugs and in communication with the spirits through cards and candles.”
Swan is using the book as a platform, having discovered articles that support a connection between drug use and schizophrenia.
She reports that “John Kelly, professor of psychiatry in addiction medicine at Harvard Medical School says, ‘Some people may have a genetic propensity for mental illness like schizophrenia that only manifests under certain conditions.'” Kelly goes on to say that drug use might trigger a switch that turns on the genes that promote psychosis.
Swan believes her brother was affected in that way. As Swan states “I believe my brother and I have a predisposition to mental illness.” She adds “Did my brother’s teen use of marijuana contribute to his debilitating mental illness? We may never know.”
"A Night in Jail" was a true collaboration.
“Technically, my brother provided all the stories and I did all the writing. We began by simply having long conversations over the phone, which I recorded. After that, I had a mass of information that, frankly, I had no idea what to do with. We came up with two approaches to organizing the material: one was a ‘this is what happened and this is what was learned’ approach. The other was a fictional structure which would tell his stories as part of the exposition and plot.”
Swan wrote the first ten pages of each version, and gave them to two trusted friends.
“Both of my friends said they felt like the first option was one they should read—but wouldn’t. They said they wanted to know what was going to happen in the fictional approach. So, we took their advice. I would write and then I’d read the pages to Kirk over the phone. He would make corrections and help me to understand the motivation of each character.”
Swan said the book is a cautionary tale, written to engage teen readers with a plot that illustrates the messages contained in her story. “Our goal is to have it read in schools where the issues of drug use, health, sociology and psychology can be discussed in conjunction with the recent scientific research.”
Swan said her brother loves the book and is doing well. He's living in a sober group home and attending 12-step meetings.
“His daily life is dedicated to recovery,” she said. “He says if sharing his life helps steer one person away from drugs he will be satisfied.”
The novella is available on Amazon and through the author's website anightinjail.com.