With painful clarity, Liz Thomas remembers when she first knew her only child was mentally ill. It was September 1979. Frederick, her son, was a seventeen-year-old senior at Houston’s Kashmere High. He had always been a good kid, a B student, and interested in the usual things: music and movies and girls. He got into the occasional scrape, but not often, for it was not in Fred Thomas’ nature to cause trouble.
The previous spring, Fred had begun to undergo a dramatic personality change. He started skipping school. He spent days in his bedroom, where he sat on his bed and stared at the walls, his door closed, his radio blaring. At night he wandered around his Fifth Ward neighborhood, smoking pot and drinking beer, and sometimes harassing the neighbors. He made lewd comments to women who walked by his house and became brusque and cold toward his mother. Whenever Liz tried to get Fred to come out of his room, her once-polite son would lash out at her with curses and threats, and push her out the door.
Liz Thomas has a younger sister who has schizophrenia, the most commonly diagnosed form of serious mental illness in this country. But Liz could not bring herself to contemplate the awful thought that her son was showing symptoms of the same disease. At first she ascribed Fred’s behavior to “a teenage thing.” Then in July, after a frightening outburst in which Fred ripped his bedroom door off the wall, Liz took him to Harris County Psychiatric Hospital, a forty-bed hospital—at th...