In her newest book, Wyoming author Mary Billiter takes the life-altering mental health issues faced by her actual son and turns the experience into a work of fiction. A Divided Mind is a story told through the eyes of Tara and her son Branson as they confront the voices and hallucinations taking over his mind. Billiter consulted her son Kyle Thomas throughout the writing process. Wyoming Public Radio's Tennessee Watson sat down with them to learn more.
Tennessee Watson: Where were the two of you at with your own experience when this book idea emerged?
Mary Billiter: Yeah. That's a great question. What happened was Kyle came to me his senior year in high school and said he was hearing voices and my first instinct as a mom was to make them [the voices] go away, and his first instinct was to find out what was going on. So, of course, we traveled this course. I mean the very next day I had him into an emergency intake session and we were in Casper at the time. And I was writing for The Casper Star-Tribune. I was this career journalist and I just started asking questions because I just couldn't understand any of this. It was just like, "What do you mean you're hearing voices?" Like, "What does that look like? What happens?".
And as I started writing, you know asking, he was just such great feedback. The story would not be what it is without Kyle. There's no way I could get into Brandon's head if Kyle hadn't let me into his. So it was just, yeah it started from a really a quest for answers, like "What's going on?".
And then I had my own emotions tied up in it and it was kind of our journey at the time.
TW: And I wonder what does it feel like to see that experience rendered as a work of fiction?
Kyle Thomas: So it was very interesting to go through it and just kind of relive those moments and remind my self of what had happened.
MB: And how far you've come too. How much growth there has been. This was four years ago, senior year in high school and Kyle just graduated from the University of Wyoming in May. So four years later, a four-year degree, I mean this is the hope: that mental illness is not the end for somebody.
TW: So you mentioned your instincts as a journalist and I'm wondering why not do this as a work of non-fiction? Or what were you able to tackle that you wouldn't have been able to take on in non-fiction?
MB: When I'm writing fiction I control the content. I get to know just how far into our lives you go. So while I open us up a lot I still have that precipice of where I won't go that far. You know so fiction is this great world. Plus Tara got to have some amazing shoes and a way better car than I had, so.
TW: I did notice that. [Laughter]
MB: So I had some liberties there but you know there were things that Tara got to do that I didn't have the freedom or the resources to do, so you know it was fun to live in that world.
TW: Well I want to take us to maybe a less fun part of that world, and Mary I wanted to ask you to read a passage from the book. And it's a scene where Branson the son, he comes home late after hitting a cat with his car. And I have to say I found it to be a particularly heartbreaking scene because they both really need something and they're not able to give it to each other.
MB: Agreed. OK. Here we go.
"The porch light was on, and even though the blinds in the front room were drawn, I could see the faint ficker of another light shining inside.
My throat tightened. I held my keys tightly and stood outside my house.
I can't do this. I can't tell her about the woman or the cat or how it's getting worse. She doesn't deserve this.
I swallowed hard and placed my key into the lock, barely opening the door before she was in front of me.
Her voice was the sound of home. It was enough to buckle me, but I couldn't. Instead, I cocked my head. "What?"
She shook her head. "I just wanted to make sure you're okay."
"For Christ's sake, I hit a cat. It's not that big a deal."
Now she sounded wounded. "Listen," I said with an edge to my voice, "I'm tired and I just want to go to bed. I can't do this right now."
Her eyes softened, the green reminding me of String Lake in Jackson, a fishing spot where we used to go with my dad. The water was warm and a greenish blue that was impossible not to stare into, let alone want to touch.
I wanted to reach out to her, to be held, for her to tell me everything was going to be okay. That I wasn't alone. That I'd never be alone. That she'd make this all go away.
I just shook my head. "I'm going to bed."
"Okay," she said with a weak attempt at a smile. "Good night."
I brushed past her as she called out my name. I turned and exhaled. "What?"
TW: That scene for me posed a question about how we get past that, when fear is motivating how we're treating each other and we lose some of that intimacy and vulnerability. And I think the book offers some really incredible ideas about how you do that.
KT: Yes. So we kind of had to work up to that. I mean my mom and I have always been close but mental illness to me, I had no idea what was going on and . . . whenever I had a problem I usually dealt with it by myself which was very unhealthy. And I think it even worsened in my symptoms. So I think the best thing you can do is either talk to someone whether it's a counselor or family member, but just coming out with it relieves so much stress off your personal life. Just to share that information with someone else and to get the help that you need. I know a lot of people that are undiagnosed and they keep this all to themselves. [They worry] they're just bothering people and I just think that opening up to my mom and writing this book together and her asking questions of what was going on in my life and the symptoms, it was just kind of a relief to talk about what I was going through with someone that I trusted.
And I just think doing that has just helped me tremendously and definitely, this book was just a great way to talk about my symptoms and everything.
TW: Well your book A Divided Mind comes out on July 27 from Tangled Tree Publishing. And Mary Billiter and Kyle Thomas thank you so much for sharing your story.
MB and KT: Thank you. Thank you.
Barnes and Noble in Cheyenne is hosting "A Divided Mind" book signing with the author on August 3.