Mindy Greiling was known in the Minnesota House as an education-focused DFL liberal from Roseville — energetic, conscientious and tenacious in pursuit of policy goals.
What not many at the Capitol knew during her 1993-2012 tenure was that starting in 1999, Greiling was also the mother of a man afflicted with schizoaffective disorder, a nasty combination of schizophrenia and bipolar disorder that wreaks havoc on the lives of its victims and their families.
Jim Greiling’s illness and his family’s 20-year effort to help him are rivetingly chronicled in former Rep. Greiling’s new book, “Fix What You Can: Schizophrenia and a Lawmaker’s Fight for her Son.”
The book reveals that the former legislator is as adept at storytelling as lawmaking. It relates Jim’s story in compelling terms that should both enlighten readers who are unfamiliar with his disease and hearten those who know it only too well. Greiling amply achieves her book’s stated goal: to “model what I encourage everyone to do: tell our stories.”
“Our collective voices are the best way to shake up the mental health system,” she adds.
As a legislator, Greiling helped administer an important shake-up. She was instrumental in the enactment of a 2001 bill opening wider the door to civil commitment for dangerously psychotic people. She also helped found a bipartisan mental health caucus at the Legislature, adding political heft to efforts to enlarge and adequately fund mental health services.
But while the book highlights the importance of sound public policy for treating and supporting the mentally ill, “Fix What You Can” is primarily a personal story of a 20-year ride on a frightening roller coaster. Greiling announces in the book’s introduction that Jim is alive and participated in the book’s editing. Were it not for that early assurance, readers would wonder during the telling of several cliffhanging episodes whether he survived.
How he survived is clear. Jim Greiling has passed his 40th birthday because his parents and older sister have been steadfastly behind him, providing emotional, physical and financial support through crisis after crisis. Through suicide attempts, incarceration, chemical dependency relapses, debilitating pharmacological side effects and more, Jim was never alone.
Though Jim’s story is presented clearly and chronologically, it’s complicated. That’s the fault not of the author but of a fragmented system that sends vulnerable people in and out of treatment regimens, housing and employment. Minnesota’s response to mental illness is far from seamless. This state’s institutions tend to be quick to act — and overreact, with armed police — when mental health crises come, but slow to respond to early warning signs, when crises might be averted.
Greiling’s book appears as Minnesotans are looking critically at the role of policing in their shared lives. Its contribution to that examination is both timely and important. “Fix What You Can” offers readers deeper understanding of mental illness’ toll and a keener sense that society can do better by those afflicted. Putting this book in citizens’ hands is in keeping with Greiling’s long career of public service — and if it is that career’s capstone, it’s a worthy one.
Lori Sturdevant is a retired Star Tribune editorial writer who covered the Minnesota Legislature for more than four decades.
Fix What You Can
By: Mindy Greiling.
Publisher: University of Minnesota Press, 246 pages, $19.95.
Virtual events: Book launch, 1 p.m. Thursday, z.umn.edu/greiling-launch; 7 p.m. Oct. 14, SubText Books online, subtextbooks.com; 6:30 p.m. Oct. 20, Ramsey County Library and League of Women Voters, rclreads.org.