Sylphlike and petite, with sparkling blue eyes and a gracious smile that never quits — that’s Susan Doherty Hannaford’s beautiful shell. Look deeper, you discover a brain that’s on steroids and a gutsy determination that never faltered during two stem cell transplants and a grueling recovery from a crippling life-threatening disease.
(She’s also a pen pal with Prince William, the Duke of Cambridge, but more on that later.)
Susan’s hot-off-the-press book is “THE GHOST GARDEN: Inside the Lives of Schizophrenia’s Feared and Forgotten,” published by Random House. The Ottawa Review of Books declares it’s a “tour de force” because “it reaches into the lives of the most marginalized of our society” and offers deep reflection on the fundamental question of how we should treat those whose lives are consumed by schizophrenia and other mental illnesses.
GHOST GARDEN reads like a novel. But every chapter of the 330+ page book derives from someone Susan knew in her childhood or met while she volunteered weekly in the schizophrenic section of the Douglas Institute in Montreal, a ward requiring special elevator and door keys to enter.
The heart of the book focuses on Caroline, a woman who believed she could save her roommate from the devil by pouring boiling water in her ear. Intertwined with Caroline’s story are, Susan says, “18 vignettes of the men and women who have also spoken to me of their deepest desires, unmet longing and unimaginable hurts. What began for me as a weekly volunteer commitment has transformed into a need to shed light on the truth of debilitating mental illness.”
The morning I interviewed Susan she had just come in from two hours of weeding gardens at her Kennebunk Beach home — and yet she looked fresh as a daisy. She told me the book’s haunting title “was my one and only choice. It’s layered with other meanings, almost a double entendre, because people see schizophrenics as less than formed, much like they see ghosts.”
The hardest part of writing the book? “Getting the message right. I fretted endlessly about wanting to be sure I told the true story.”
Susan’s empathy radiates from every page. She says, “I know the loneliness a mentally ill person feels when they are in a locked ward. I spent 50 days of complete isolation during my stem cell transplants in a locked hospital ward. Like mentally ill patients, my meds also had horrible side effects. And I kept wondering, will I ever get out of here and, if I do, what will I look like? Probably the only difference between what I went through and patients in the schizophrenic ward at the Douglas Institute is that I was able to walk away from my illness — they cannot.”
Susan’s award winning first novel was A SECRET MUSIC, published in 2015. It focuses on a young man's struggle to overcome family tragedy and succeed on stage as the great concert pianist he was meant to be. I asked if GHOST GARDEN would appeal to similar readers.
“Originally, I thought my primary audience was families who have a member suffering from schizophrenia. But I came to realize this is also a book about awareness for the greater public to understand what schizophrenia is all about, and to open their minds about an illness shrouded in stigmas.”
Which is what prompted her to send a note to the Duke of Edinburgh last Spring.
Susan explains, “Prince Philip’s mother Alice suffered from schizophrenia and spent 30 years in an asylum in Switzerland. So I wrote a letter to him, describing the book, mentioning also that I knew his grandsons had recently started a philanthropic foundation called Heads Together that supports mental health. I suggested that perhaps, if one of his grandsons read the book, he might have greater understanding of mental illness.”
Five days later a courier-ed letter was delivered to Susan’s Montreal home. The return address was Buckingham Palace. The note said, “Send the book.”
Susan immediately mailed off a note to Prince William, Duke of Cambridge, and included THE GHOST GARDEN. His response came several weeks later: “Thank you for your book. You're doing an excellent job in the area of mental health.”
Did I also mention that Susan is one of the most creative marketers on the planet?
THE GHOST GARDEN is available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble and Target.