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The secrets that lie within us

The secrets that lie within us

Toronto writer James FitzGerald’s new book What Disturbs Our Blood: A Son’s Quest to Redeem the Past, the winner of the prestigious 2010 Writers’ Union Trust Non-Fiction Prize, was more than four decades—and a lifetime of anguish—in the making.

Toronto author James FitzGerald, Arts’72, doesn’t believe that adage that “What you don’t know can’t hurt you.”

The author of the critically acclaimed new book What Disturbs Our Blood, the 2010 winner of the Writer's' Union Trust Prize (Non-Fiction), learned early in his life that what you don’t know can hurt and can be self-defining. In his own case, it was a family secret about mental illness that threatened to destroy him.

James is the scion of one of Toronto’s most prominent medical families. His father, Jack, was a high-profile physician who opened Toronto’s first allergy clinic. FitzGerald’s grandfather, Gerry, founded two of Canada’s best-known public health institutions—the School of Hygiene at the University of Toronto and Connaught Laboratories—and worked alongside Frederick Banting and Charles Best as they discovered insulin.

[Toronto writer James FitzGerald, Arts'72]Toronto writer James FitzGerald, Arts'72, is the winner of the 2010 Writers' Union Trust Prize for his book What Disturbs Our Blood.

The FitzGeralds lived what seemed to be the charmed life of Toronto’s WASP elite. Young James and his brother and sister wanted for nothing, at least materially. Yet there was trouble in paradise. The author, now 59, told the Review, “I slowly became as attuned to what my family wasn’t talking about as to what they were.”

The truth was that both Gerry and Jack FitzGerald were deeply troubled men. The demons of depression and mental illness lived within them, a reality that James alludes to in the title of his book, which comes from a line in William Butler Yeats’s poem "The Wheel" (“…what disturbs our blood/ Is but its longing for the tomb.”)

James was painfully aware that Jack FitzGerald had suffered a nervous breakdown in 1966, botched two suicide attempts, and lived out his life sedated and under psychiatric care, dying in 1992.

Meanwhile, the son had his own demons to wrestle with. He bombed out in first year at Queen’s. When he was allowed to return for a second year, a Film Studies course taught by Prof. Peter Harcourt changed his life, opening his eyes to his own creative potential. James completed a three-year BA, did a one-year graduate program in Journalism at Western, and then worked as a reporter for 19 years. However, like his mother before him, he was a frustrated artist and longed to write creatively.

James became a freelance writer in 1992 and began writing about what really mattered to him. One of them was the dirty little secrets of life behind the closed doors at Upper Canada College, which he had attended in his youth, as had his father and grandfather before him. James’s explosive 2002 book, Old Boys: The Powerful Legacy of Upper Canada College, sparked an inquiry into sexual abuse at the school, resulted in criminal charges being laid against three former teachers, and prompted a successful multi-million-dollar class action law suit against UCC.

Next, James began delving into his own troubled life. He explains that people were always asking him why he hadn’t “made more” of himself. He had puzzled over the same thing, wondering why it was that he seemed to “cultivate mediocrity.” Yet his gut instinct told him there was a reason, one even he didn’t understand. It was only when he researched his own genealogy that he came to understand what it was: mental illness ran in the family.

Determined to avoid the same dark fate that had befallen both his father and grandfather (and a paternal uncle), James not only confronted his personal demons, he wrote about them.

James uncovered the secret his stiff-upper-lip parents had never shared with him or his siblings: Gerry FitzGerald had killed himself in 1940.

Determined to avoid the same dark fate that had befallen both his father and grandfather (and a paternal uncle), James not only confronted his personal demons, he wrote about them. His journey of self-discovery took 15 long years to complete, but he now says all of the effort was worth it. The fruit of his labours is a remarkable book that has won critical plaudits—reviewer Steve Noyes of The National Post has hailed it as “a fascinating, multi-layered history of 20th-century medicine and a passionate inquiry into a family’s tragedies”—and the book is the winner of the 2010 Writers’ Union Trust Award (Non-Fiction), which carries with it a $25,000 cash prize.

FitzGerald is delighted to have won that honour, but he says he felt he had already won when he finished writing What Disturbs Our Blood. As he recently told a Globe and Mail reporter, “If I hadn’t . . . done this book, I think I’d have drunk myself to oblivion or had ‘an accident’. Or maybe I’d have faded into lethargic stupor.”

[Queen's Alumni Review 2010-4 cover]