After a psychotic break in NYC, Wichita man finds help at home

The Gorilla and Bird share advice

Author Zack McDermott and his mother, Cindy Cisneros McGilvrey, a Wichita teacher, share advice for how to help a child with mental illness. McDermott's book, "Gorilla and the Bird: A Memoir of Madness and a Mother's Love," will be published Sept.
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Author Zack McDermott and his mother, Cindy Cisneros McGilvrey, a Wichita teacher, share advice for how to help a child with mental illness. McDermott's book, "Gorilla and the Bird: A Memoir of Madness and a Mother's Love," will be published Sept.

About eight years after Zack McDermott graduated from Northwest High School, police found him standing on a subway platform somewhere in Brooklyn, barefoot, crying, wearing only soccer shorts in October, hands folded behind his head like a prisoner of war.

He had spent the previous 12 hours wandering the streets of New York, convinced he was being videotaped, “Truman Show”-style, as part of an audition for a TV pilot.

An ambulance transported him to a psychiatric ward at Bellevue Hospital, and officials called his mother in Wichita.

“Of course I was absolutely terrified,” says Cindy Cisneros McGilvrey, a Wichita teacher.

At the mention of Bellevue, she imagined the “dun dun” sound at the beginning of the “Law & Order” television show. That’s where they locked up crazy people, she thought.

Then she remembered her brother, Eddie, a paranoid schizophrenic who overdosed several times, spent most of his life in a Kansas mental institution and died at 42.

“I definitely wanted to be at my son’s side,” McGilvrey said. “I wanted to know what was going on with him and wanted to know that he was being cared for.”

What happened next – McDermott’s struggle with bipolar disorder, his journey back to Kansas and a recovery guided by his mother’s unflinching support – is the subject of a new book, “Gorilla and the Bird: A Memoir of Madness and a Mother’s Love.”

The book, published by Little, Brown and Co., comes out Tuesday. McDermott and his mom are scheduled to appear at Watermark Books on Oct. 12.

McDermott, who grew up in Wichita and graduated from Northwest High in 2001, earned degrees at the University of Kansas and the University of Virginia before moving to New York to work as a public defender.

He likely exhibited symptoms of mental illness before his psychotic break at age 26, he says. He was arrested several times for unruly behavior and expelled from a few schools before finally getting his act together enough to graduate.

“Is drinking too much, and fighting too much, and being obstinate as hell and defiant against authority, and just being a general hell-raiser indicative of mental illness?” McDermott said.

“Maybe. After the fact you go, ‘Oh, well that explains all that behavior.’ But at the same time, I had good friends that were right there next to me through all of it, and none of them went to the psych ward.”

McDermott’s odyssey centers on his mother, nicknamed the Bird for her choppy head movements and her habit of puffing up her chest when she gets excited. (She nicknamed him Gorilla because of his barrel chest and excessive body hair.)

It’s a raw, darkly funny account of McDermott’s journey from Kansas to New York and back again, full of references to Wichita streets, schools and other institutions.

But it’s no love letter to his hometown.

“River Fest is Wichita’s white-trash Mardi Gras,” McDermott writes. The “OUR-Kansas” River isn’t much of a river. Wichita loves guns, B-2 bombers, cigarettes and muscle cars, he says. Prom night means a meal at Applebee’s.

As a teenager, he couldn’t wait to escape. As a young adult, back in his mother’s house and struggling to regain control of his sanity, he couldn’t wait to get out again.

“Zachary, are you going to quit drinking or not?” his psychiatrist asks at one point in the book.

“Certainly not while I’m in Wichita.”

The city is a primary character – and that’s intentional, McDermott said.

“When people say, ‘Where are you from?’ I don’t say New York. I say Wichita. I say Kansas,” he said.

“I’m really proud of being from Kansas. Is part of that rooted in the fact of getting out of Kansas? Of course it is. But I also like the person it made me.”

McGilvrey, his mother, had her own challenging upbringing in Wichita. She attended Gardiner Elementary, Mead Middle School and East High before marrying at 18, having three children and supporting the family by working at Dillons.

Thanks to a scholarship from Grow Your Own Teacher, she eventually earned a bachelor’s and master’s degree from Wichita State University and a doctorate from Kansas State. She still teaches in the adult learning center at Chester Lewis Academy.

“I imagine there are going to be some people that are not pleased with Zack’s descriptions (of Wichita),” she said. “But I do think my son does it justice. I think he describes it without being disparaging or cruel.

“A lot of people who are middle-class or upper-middle-class – because they are never around people who struggle with their housing or their food – they may truly believe everything is OK, because it’s OK for them.

“But we’re not all ‘Brady Bunch.’ … It’s like: Wichita, let us expose your warts.”

McGilvrey and her son said they hope the book, which has gotten international press in such publications as The London Times, the New York Times and Rolling Stone magazine, will be a vehicle for encouraging empathy and advocating for mental health reform.

“When a person is at their absolute worst, when your instinct is to be repelled by them, what you really need to do is go toward them,” McGilvrey said.

“You really don’t know the anguish that other people go through, especially the mentally ill, and you should be very loving and careful and see everyone as maybe wounded, but not defective.”

Suzanne Perez Tobias: 316-268-6567, @suzannetobias