It was in 1979 when David Geiger first exhibited the symptoms of schizophrenia in a tragic incident that led to his wife’s untimely demise. It was also when he came face to face with the realities of the criminal legal system where mental illness was dismissed as a crime. But Geiger was not to be easily brought to his knees. Instead, he took his experience to bring about the much-needed change that nobody as resilient and relentless as he is can achieve in his lifetime.
Today, David Geiger is married with two kids and is a licensed electrical engineer with a master’s degree. More than anything, he is the advocate and artist who publishes books and articles as well as takes concrete actions to help reduce the life-threatening consequences of recidivism.
What part of you that you included in this book that you were never hesitant to reveal through Edwin Potter?
Thanks for starting with an easy one. The book is a catharsis, so I was never hesitant about revealing how we – patients with mental illness in general – were being treated. We were outcasts of society, second-class citizens, unworthy of social acceptance, an inferior race of people. It still continues today.
Were there any mental or emotional challenges you encountered while writing or publishing and what were they?
I had no problems with mental issues. I think it should be said, though, that support for the book was spotty. As you read in the book, Ruth Nussbaum was the one who planted the idea in my mind to write the book. She was my strongest supporter. My family was another matter. I got little support from them. But they were there for me at the time of the trial and when I was in the hospital. I don’t know what to think. Professionals, though not all, working in the area of mental illness and criminal justice reform were also supportive, and we communicated on a professional level. Friends, the few I had, were also patchy in their support.
What would you consider as the worst experience with everything that has happened to Edwin?
The actions that took place in 1979 remain with me. They never go away. People don’t understand what it is to live with the memories.
What do you think was going on in Edwin’s mind to make him plead insanity during his trial?
Well, I covered this topic in the book, but to tell you, I had only one-quarter of one percent chance of winning my case in court. Very low! But I told my lawyer that I was not going to plead guilty to something that I did not want to do. I would rather die. Fortunately, I won the case. But I am still living with the consequences today.
How do you think Edwin would have coped differently without Ruth Nussbaum’s graciousness to him at that time in his life?
Ruth Nussbaum taught me that I have value – something new to me. That I am intelligent, that I should believe in myself. I still have problems with that one today, 40 years later. Some people like to tear me down or steal my ideas (which is why I copyright everything), and I must overcome that every day. I would not be who I am today without her.
How helpful were the art therapy and art show for someone like Edwin Potter who had a mental illness?
I enjoy the freedom that comes with being an artist: putting my ideas down on paper, drawing lines that describe in simple fashion a much more nuanced subject. My friends are impressed by this. I have ten pages of drawings that I am proud of in my book. I included a sample here for you. And it is fun to post my work in a show like that at The School of Visual Arts in New York City. I am gaining skills and more importantly, confidence to develop artwork that can be sold.
Art therapy has similar trappings for me: I do not see a difference.
Yet there are those who will peer deeply, deeply into a drawing and see things that are not there. Circa 1982: I had drawn a picture of Saddam Hussein while I was in the psychiatric hospital. I did it because I wanted to see how far my skills had come. I had copied it from a news magazine. When the therapists saw it, they were aghast that I had become a follower of Hussein. The only thing it showed me, in my mind, was how stupid and provincial were the people who were taking care of me. Fortunately, after some questioning, the doctors saw it for what it was – a drawing taken from an otherwise barren environment.
Another time, I remembered being shown a series of drawings during one of my evaluations by a psychologist. I was supposed to tell them what I saw. One of them was “The Scream” by Edvard Munch. I said, “Now this looks like a drawing by someone with some serious problems.” The psychologist was aghast and interpreted that there was something wrong with me.
If you were given the opportunity to change one thing in Edwin’s story what would it be and why?
I would include more anecdotes. There was a young woman – a college student – who was working for me as an engineer one summer at Storm Utility. My job was to teach her how to be an engineer. I’ll call her Michelle. So, there was a project that I thought she could handle. I taught her what was needed, and she drew up the plans and, after my review, sent her to the field. I also told her on her way out to use my name. When Michelle came back, she told me the story of all of the difficulties she had trying to get the cooperation of the people at the electric substation. These are not places for people who do not know what they are doing. Then she remembered to use my name. Michelle said it was like the parting of the Red Sea.
Tell us about the process of your own recovery experience with schizophrenia.
This story is told in the book.
There was no formal process. A patient is put in a very structured environment so that he does not hurt himself or others. As he gets better, he progresses to less restrictive environments. Some never leave maximum security. In my case, my recovery took time, maybe a year, when all of a sudden a voice went off in my head saying that I had lost my mind. I suddenly realized that everything I believed was happening to me was a fantasy. I was bitterly devastated at the loss of my wife and son.
What is most common between you and Edwin Potter’s character?
Edwin Potter and I are one.
If you are going to write a sequel to this book, how would you title it and why?
I have been thinking about titles for the next book, but let’s make this one happen first.
I might call it In the Matter of Edwin Potter: The Women in My Life. This is asking for trouble.
In the Matter of Edwin Potter: The Second Chapter. This would follow the story as it continues from IMOEP: Mental Illness and Criminal Justice Reform. Because this is based upon a true story, I do not have an ending yet. I have been writing to public officials and others as well to address mental illness and criminal justice reform. Also, in the summer of 2017, I took 52 books and delivered them by hand to Colleges and Universities both large and small in the northern NJ and New York City area. Imagine if they took my ideas to heart. Maybe that is how this all happened… I wrote my first article on the subject in May 1998 for a Mensa newsletter and a more developed approach in October 1999 which I expanded upon and included in my book as chapter 104. I write a blog for my website at www.davidegeiger.com where you can follow the developing story.
People in the field are beginning to see that this can work.