A Tragic Story of Paranoid Schizophrenia: Lowboy, by John Wray

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Allan Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D. was in private practice for more than thirty years. He is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in the states ...Read More

We get many questions about schizophrenia, the psychoses, hallucinations and delusions. Most of the questions relate to definitions, clarifications and where to go for help. There are also questions about why people with this illness are stigmatized. While we do the best we can in answering all of these questions, there is sometimes nothing like a really good novel to provide the best explanation of all. An excellent young writer by the name of John Wray recently published his third novel entitled, Lowboy. It is a fascinating story of an adolescent boy and his travels through the New York City Subway System. In many ways, the dark tunnels of the subways are a metaphor for the dark tunnels he is forced to traverse in his psychotic mind. I cannot think of a better way to understand this illness than to read the book.

William Heller, referring to himself as "Lowboy," is released from a mental hospital and roams through the subway system. While he "cheeked" most of his medications (cheeking is a way of pretending to take pills while hiding them in your mouth only to discard them later) he did swallow some. As he travels through the subways, the remainder of any medicines in his body gradually wear away. As this happens, his mind falls ever deeper into psychosis.


As a result of the medications wearing away, Will increasingly interprets everything he encounters through his hallucinations and delusions. To clarify, hallucinations are false sensations that cause a patient to hear, see, touch, taste, and/or smell things that are not there. Delusions are unrealistic ways of thinking that usually bond with the hallucinations to produce a fictional world that the patient is certain is real. Everything that Will experiences through his travels are increasingly translated through his psychotic mind.

In addition to Will, there are other characters in the book such as the detective who is trying to find him, his mother, former girlfriend and the various psychiatrists he saw before and during his hospitalization. There are various characters he meets during his travels through the subways who appear as distorted, cartoon versions of who they might be. The presence of the detective has to do with the concern that Will might be violent. Evidently, there were a couple of instances prior to his hospitalization where Will might have been violent. However, the author leaves it somewhat unclear as to whether this was true or not. Did he throw his girlfriend onto the train tacks or had she jumped?

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In fact, it can be said that the entire book is seen through the haze of mental illness. The Psychiatrists and all the characters are somewhat vague, doubtful figures who are potentially threatening.

At times, it is difficult to know if Will is conversing with a real person, an hallucination or a real person he has distorted into something semi real and semi hallucinated. This is equally true of his conversations.

One of the heart breaking underlying themes of the novel is Will’s search for his purpose on this earth. Of course, normal adolescents search for the very same thing. However, they are guided by people in the real world. Lowboy is left to his psychotic mind to find the answer to this question.

Another theme that underlies the story is the entire question as to just who is normal and who is not? There are those times where the tough New York City detective seems to hover on the verge of mental illness himself. This struggle occurs through the prism of his attempting to understand Will’s mother who, as it turns out in the end, he completely misinterprets.

I do not want to say more about this book in order that all of you read this wonderful novel.

In fact, I encourage all of you to read Lowboy and submit your opinions and view points. If not, all are welcome to comment about this article, the psychoses and the issue of mental illness.

Allan N. Schwartz, LCSW, PhD

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