The Book of Malcolm: My Son’s Life with Schizophrenia by Fraser Sutherland

Whenever you read a book about mental illness, fiction or otherwise, it’s always from the perspective of the person with the illness. Take Girl, Interrupted, Susanna Kaysen’s memoir of her time at a mental institution after being diagnosed with a borderline personality disorder. Or Ned Vizzini’s It’s Kind of a Funny Story, Julia Walton’s Words on Bathroom Walls, and countless others.

“Fraser Sutherland’s posthumous publication is a first-hand account of parents’ despair and helplessness when their child is diagnosed with a debilitating illness.”

This is where The Book of Malcolm stands out. Chronicling his son’s battle with schizophrenia from the time of diagnosis in his early teens to his untimely death at the age of 26, Fraser Sutherland’s posthumous publication is a first-hand account of parents’ despair and helplessness when their child is diagnosed with a debilitating illness. We see, hear, and feel it all not as a sufferer of the disease itself, but as bystanders who want to help and do something but are powerless to do so.

Fashioned like a memoir, Sutherland’s latest work is divided into three sections. The first section lays out Malcolm’s sudden demise and its aftermath; the second is a detailed account of  Malcolm’s life, including Sutherland’s recollection of various family moments (memorable at times and humorous at others); and the third and final section relates the slippery slope of Malcolm’s diagnosis and his subsequent trials and tribulations with Canada’s mental health system.

It is the last section that truly gripped my attention, not only because it showed the struggles the Sutherland family experienced as a whole, but also because it reveals how burdened the country’s mental health system is. In one instance, it’s almost shocking to see the psychiatrist dismissing another one of Malcolm’s psychotic episodes as a mere pretence to grab attention:

Dr. S began to suggest he was faking. It took a lot of faking, I thought, to give oneself a black eye and eat one’s own feces. 

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Of course, Sutherland is careful not to show the healthcare workers as an unsympathetic, negligent lot and sprinkles other examples of patient nurses and supportive therapists throughout the work. It still raises the question of exactly how “professional” a mental health professional is if they are unable to empathize with patients and their families.

An eye-opener, The Book of Malcolm has topped the list of books I have read this year because of the way it deals with mental illness: brutally honest and starkly poignant. While the prose itself lacks any garnishes and reads almost like a factual report, it doesn’t deter from what this book really is–a masterpiece.


Fraser Sutherland (1946–2021) was the author of seventeen previous books of poetry and essays. He was a widely respected critic, editor, and lexicographer. Originally from Pictou, Nova Scotia, he lived for periods in Montreal, Toronto, Sarajevo, British Columbia, Scotland, Portugal, and China.

  • Publisher ‏ : ‎ Dundurn Press (Jan. 18 2022)
  • Language ‏ : ‎ English
  • Paperback ‏ : ‎ 200 pages
  • ISBN-10 ‏ : ‎ 1459749561
  • ISBN-13 ‏ : ‎ 978-1459749566

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