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Think Differently

John Cadigan's journey through schizophrenia is profiled in 'People Say I'm Crazy'

By Richard von Busack

AS SALVADOR DALI said, "The only difference between me and a madman is that I'm not mad." Within the frame of a work of art, an artist's temperament may run free. Looking at local artist John Cadigan's prints and woodcuts, there is no way of knowing the backstory of his personal struggle with schizophrenia. The slaved-over vines, figures, prisms and labyrinths he cut into wood might be the work of any highly talented fine artist, afflicted as Cadigan is. Still, his art was distinguished enough to be included at the U.S. Capitol building show of 14 artists with metal illness titled "Truth From Darkness."

As directed by Cadigan and his sister, Katie, and produced by Ira Wohl (who won an Oscar for Best Boy), People Say I'm Crazy is a first-person documentary. It charts his long battle with his illness, as well as the art he created in spite of it, whenever agitation or depression didn't stop him. Cadigan had been a promising art student at Carnegie-Mellon, and he studied printmaking at the Tyler School of Art program in Rome. At age 21, Cadigan suffered his first attack. This began a long series of doctors, hospitals and sessions with electroconvulsive therapy. Eventually, the drug Clozaril helped him manage his illness, but it had the side effect of raising his weight 100 pounds. Though pulled by the tides of his troubles, Cadigan eventually gets what he's dreamt of: a place of his own.

People Say I'm Crazy is a film that's already been a favorite on the film-festival circuit, winning awards at the Chicago, Vancouver, Wilmington and New Jersey film fests. It is particularly overdue in our area, since it is loaded with South Bay locations, including the Food Closet in Palo Alto, where Cadigan does volunteer work.

Some of the lessons you can draw from this film: First, even though familial love isn't enough to heal every schizophrenic's pain and stigma, Cadigan was extremely fortunate to come from a loving family. They pulled through for him, as we see here from interviews with his mother, brother and sisters. Their loyalty is really evident during the worst of his illness, when Cadigan suspected even them: "I thought Katie was using me to further her film career," he tells the camera. And in his worst moments, the artist confesses fantasies of hurting the ones around him. Second, John and Katie Cadigan's documentary is a realer, rawer look at the cat-and-mouse quality of this kind of illness. Their take is much more honest than fictional films that portray the mentally ill as more whimsical or pure than the everyday person. Crowd-pleasing movies like A Beautiful Mind and The Fisher King aren't doing anyone any favors—particularly those who still suffer.

The local premiere and screening on May 15 includes a post-film Q and A with Cadigan and a VIP reception at the San Jose Museum of Art, where Cadigan's artwork is on display. The event is a benefit for the Alliance for Community Care, the valley's largest nonprofit provider of mental health services. Tickets are available through 408.254.6820, ext. 217, or at alliance4care.org.

People Say I'm Crazy (Unrated), a documentary by John and Katie Cadigan, plays Sunday at 4pm and Tuesday at 2 and 7:30pm at Camera 12 in San Jose.

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From the May 4-10, 2005 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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