James FitzGerald

What Disturbs Our Blood

A son's quest to redeem the past . . .

Dr. John Gerald FitzGerald, 1912

Gerry, Edna, Molly and Jack FitzGerald, Limerick, Ireland 1935.

03Baby James.jpg

Author James FitzGerald and his mother Janet, 186 Balmoral Avenue, Toronto, Spring 1951

Related Articles

Toronto Life, "Mental Block", December 1999 (Profile of The Centre for Addiction and Mental Health).

Opened 150 years ago -- on January 26, 1850 -- the Provincial Lunatic Asylum at 999 Queen Street West was proclaimed a paragon of progressive architecture that embodied enlightened 19th-century principles for the "moral treatment" of the insane. The original white brick, four-storey, 250-bed structure boasted a breathtaking 600-foot facade, classical dome, and the most advanced ventilation and plumbing systems in North America. Verandahed sunrooms overlooked 50 acres of landscaped gardens and farm land where inmates tilled the soil and took physical exercise as part of their convalescence. READ FULL ARTICLE

Toronto Life, "Sins of the Fathers", February 2002 (Profile of Dr. J.G. FitzGerald).

Like his friends, Banting and Best, Dr. John Gerald FitzGerald was a Canadian hero. He founded the Connaught Labs, saved untold lives with his vaccines and transformed Canada’s public health system. What so darkened his reputation that his memory has been all but erased? READ FULL ARTICLE

University of Toronto Magazine, "The Troubled Healer", Spring 2002 (Profile of Dr. J.G. FitzGerald)

On the afternoon of Saturday, June 22, 1940, 10 years before my birth, a casket bearing the body of my grandfather was carried solemnly onto the stage of Convocation Hall. Hundreds of mourners, many drawn from the Canadian and international medical elite, turned to catch a glimpse of Sir Frederick Banting and Charles Best among the distinguished pallbearers. My father, Jack, then a 23-year-old University of Toronto medical student, sat silently with his sister, Molly, and mother, Edna. READ FULL ARTICLE

University of Toronto Magazine, “A New Era in Public Health”, Winter 2009.

More than five years have passed since the SARS crisis hit Toronto. Few will forget Sheela Basrur (MD 1982, MHSc 1987, DSc Hon. 2008), the city’s top medical officer, calmly updating residents while health-care workers searched for a way to arrest the spread of the fatal virus. Before SARS could be stopped, it killed 44 people, led to the loss of millions of tourist dollars and exposed weaknesses in Canada’s once-peerless public health system through a barrage of humiliating publicity. The crisis dramatized the importance of vigilant public health measures and how Canada – historically a world leader in health care – had taken the system for granted. “Many inside and outside the public health field had been lulled into a false sense of security,” says Dr. David Naylor, the dean of U of T’s Faculty of Medicine when SARS hit. READ FULL ARTICLE

Quill & Quire, "Getting to Know Them", September 2010.

Most families are riddled with secrets, but I suspect mine was more riddled than most. During the Second World War, my mother worked as a clandestine decoding clerk, helping the MI5 spymaster Sir William Stevenson track Nazi agents. READ FULL ARTICLE

Medical Bag, “Examining the Crisis of Physician Suicides: Then and Now”, by Dr. Tafari Mbadiwe, February 2018

Dr. John Gerald “Gerry” FitzGerald was one of those admirable-bordering-on-irritating overachievers. He turned up in medical school on 1899 — just 16 years old — and completed multiple internships at an age when less precocious boys were still learning how to shave. READ FULL ARTICLE

Profile of Dr. John Gerald FitzGerald, Dictionary of Canadian Biography 


The emotional chilliness of early twentieth century Toronto is blended with a tragic story of brilliant scientists and physicians doomed to madness, in journalist James FitzGerald’s memoir, What Disturbs Our Blood. In this quest, rendered with poetic intensity of feeling, FitzGerald investigates the suicide of his grandfather, a titan of public health in the history of Toronto, and its effect on his father, another distinguished medical man, and on the author himself. Never maudlin or melodramatic, FitzGerald’s book is a masterpiece of its genre, the chronicle of family secrets unearthed and healing attained.
— Judges' Citation, 2011 B.C. Award For Canadian Non-Fiction (Philip Marchand, Noah Richler & Alma Lee)
What Disturbs Our Blood is beautifully orchestrated...It’s a roaring, cumulative set-piece, a pageant of hectoring souls...A fascinating, multi-layered history of 20th century medicine and a passionate inquiry into a family’s tragedies...It’s a banshee of  a book...
— Steve Noyes, National Post
Raw, honest, superbly written, but so close to our universal fear of our insanity that it will make some people uncomfortable. Our world is very much ruled by what FitzGerald calls ‘the debased intellect’, whose primary function is to keep at bay our awareness of ‘the ceaseless riot of our inner life.’ FitzGerald’s discussion of the unconscious mind and its powers is the most succinct and powerful I have ever read.
— Dr. Gabor Mate, author of  "In The Realm of the Hungry Ghosts"
I was blown away by ‘What Disturbs Our Blood.’ I’ve been recommending the book far and wide; I see it as a must-read, especially for Canadians. So brave and lucid. Bravo!
— John Vaillant, author of "The Tiger"
Beautifully written. . .every phrase so perfectly balanced, perceptions sailing so succinctly and precipitously to the heart of the matter. It’s a real joy to read.
— Philip Shepherd, author of   "New Self, New World: Recovering Our Senses in the 21st Century"
Thank you for such an honest, courageous book. It was suspenseful, beautifully written and I admired it very much.
—   Alison Pick, author of "Far To Go"
The best Canadian book I’ve ever ever read. 
— Don Lake, D & E Lake Books & Art, Toronto
A memoir of extraordinary power and candour... as riveting as a crime thriller.
— Patricia Pearson, Globe and Mail
James FitzGerald’s What Disturbs Our Blood is a brave and compelling journey into the world of mental illness, and a riveting look at the father-son divides in a family of talented over-achievers. While plumbing the depths of one family’s tragedy, FitzGerald manages to tie in important Canadian medical discoveries, two world wars and the history of Ireland in an ambitious yet riveting narrative. In heartfelt, lively and meticulously researched prose, he links the personal to the political. Following the lead of Sigmund Freud, he dares to stare unblinkingly into the sun and honestly examine the troubled father-son relationships that have plagued his family line. In the end, his ghosts bid him farewell and leave him free to walk his own path.
— Judges' Citation, 2010 Writers' Trust Non-Fiction Prize (Hadani Ditmars, Sid Marty & Michael Mitchell)
What Disturbs Our Blood certainly disturbed me in many ways, and I thought it was magnificent. I see our country, our city, and my neighbourhood with very different eyes, not to mention our national medical heroes. . . I found potent resonances on every page.
— David Cronenberg, film director
I have never seen such a thorough and relentless treatment of the issues of suicide, addiction and the gothic side of Toronto. . . a remarkable piece of work; count me in as an admirer of this book.
— Michael Bliss    Emeritus Professor of History   University of Toronto
Like James, I was the son of a doctor. Like James’ grandfather, my father took his own life. And I know what happened when it happened with me. It was quiet. It wasn’t just quiet. There was silence....James’ book is telling us: ‘Look at this, see this, imagine this, feel this, know this, and act on this.’ That’s what creative non-fiction can do.
— Gordon Campbell, former Premier of British Columbia
An astonishing, gripping, hugely informative book, not only about your personal family history, but about matters of enormous importance to preventive medicine and the University of Toronto. Your grandfather was undoubtedly a hero of medicine, not just in Canada but for the world....an excellent and edifying  memorial, shared honestly without any attempt to disguise the flaws...
—   Dr. Isaac Sakinovsky   Emeritus Professor Psychiatry   University of Toronto

Reader Responses

"I feel compelled to write you to tell you how moving I found your book...Words that came to mind as I neared the end were magnificent, emotional, profound, all-consuming, compelling, fascinating and most importantly, courageous..." - Ken F., Lindsay, Ontario

"Damn you, James FitzGerald, for invading my dreams with your compulsively readable book. Rarely have I been so completely driven to find out what happens next. Thank you for an all-encompassing document which illuminates the past and explains the present even as it makes the present recede. It is a work of great skill and devotion. And you regularly made me laugh out loud -- 'Methodism in his madness', indeed!" - Rob B., Toronto

"I have just put your book down, and feel spent. The book is stunning -- in the research, in the telling, in its aching honesty..." - Denise M., Toronto

"Brilliant, moving, surreal, tragic and in the end, redemptive, a surmounting triumph. What a courageous quest of self-discovery..." - Wally S., Toronto

"An absolutely masterful and powerfully moving piece of work.  It brought a flood of tears as I read the final chapter. This is an important book on several levels, but what makes it a truly compelling read is your very own voice. Your use of dreams and reverie and your gift for the turning of a phrase -- you did, I think, mention you are of Irish heritage -- make this such an absolutely riveting story and a true piece of art." - Ken L., Toronto

"Thanks you for giving me such a gift, for opening so many windows onto major triumphs of Canadian medical history, big pieces of your own life, and for creating a vivid picture of Toronto that resonates with my own experience. It's a triumph of scholarship, and your own spirit, and it is a brave, thorough and deep literary experience..." - Alan W., Iowa City, Iowa

"All I can say is, 'Wow!' For the incredible breath and depth of your research, for your ability to write about an area of such tremendous vulnerability and retain your 'voice', for your beautiful use of language, of adjectives and metaphors (an incredible variety of both), for handling such a senstive and tender subject with such maturity and compassion..." - Michael T., Blue Mountain, Ontario

"It is a book unlike any other I have read. It is unique to my experience. You have created a powerful and deeply personal story which successfully weaves its fabric between many of the usual literary categories -- biography, autobiography, history, mystery and detective tale, mythology, scientific and medical critique. Amazingly you did this both for public health and probably more poignantly for psychiatry and mental health. The way you brought the parallel stories all together is a clever and skilled literary achievement..." - Don M., Toronto

"I just finished your book, but the book isn't finished with me yet! Your story was at points shocking, humourous, poignant, illuminating, educating, depressing and ultimately inspiring...You took the same 'compulsive drive' that ultimately destroyed both your father and grandfather and found a way to channel it into an incredibly important work of literature..." - Mark R., Philadelphia, PA

"What Disturbs Our Blood is a great achievement in many dimensions: sheer power of expression, social history, family drama, personal quest, a tale of how consciousness can transform everything..." - Naya K., Gibsons, B.C.

"The vastness of your research, the relentlessly absorbing density of your prose, the thrilling pace of the unfolding mystery, and the sheer beauty of your writing have left me breathless, and illuminated, and moved to tears..." - Mary-Ellen M., Toronto

"You have wrought a marvel: so tender and unsentimental in its subjectivity while fierce in its passion to search after the truth of persons whose particularities come alive for us in the light of medical, ethnic and national history...It's the very best showing of the priceless value of psychodynamic therapy I have ever read...This is a book that will endure..." - Phil M., Toronto

"I'm almost speechless when trying to express my gratitude and great respect as I read your glorious, agonizing memoir. Placing yourself as the protagonist-observer in this sometimes horrible yet sympathetic saga was a stroke of genius... You've painfully exposed the vicious ignorance and certainty in the psychiatric milieu of Toronto during the 1950s and '60s...every word is so carefully chosen and your experiences so vividly and soulfully described..." - Dr. Ross M., Toronto

Despite several tries, I could not get into this book. I had no sympathy with the author's whining "poor little lower upper class boy" tale of his childhood, made even less interesting by the author's turgid writing style. I got 70 pages and then stopped for a while. I like medical history books, "The Great Influenza" is one of my favorites, so I thought that I'd skip ahead and delve into the medical aspects of the book. I tried but I couldn't. It was like dipping one's toe into frigid water. Again, the writing was so turgid that there was no way I could develop interest in the characters or the book. I'd hoped the Toronto setting would peak my interest, and the descriptions were of some interest but not enough to save this ponderous book. - J.A. Lefcourte, Toronto

"I found out about your book from a friend who told me she had read it almost straight through, barely able to put it down, except to cry. She told me it was the best book she has ever read. She lent me the book and I too found myself riveted by it. The magnitude of what you have done astounds me. I figure that it is impossible that there are enough people thanking you for your work and your devotion to uncovering the truth. I have the sense that as more people discover it, yet more truth will be uncovered, more than you could possibly fathom..." - Gennie B., Toronto

"A remarkable, moving tour de force...you have inspired me immensely and I shall forever be grateful." - Judith C., London, Ontario

"I just finished reading your beautiful book -- truly one of the most riveting, heart-wrenching, elegantly written and enlightening books I've ever read." - Denise H., Toronto

"I am going to recommend this book to anyone I know who has a brain and a heart. It is a writing that is not for the faint of heart. However, for anyone who understands that it is not the answers to questions that is most important but the very asking of them that makes all the difference, this book will inform, captivate and set many a captive free." - Nancy G., Toronto

"You have told your grandfather's story as if you were there, in his polished shoes, and I never doubted a moment of it. You have, in effect given birth to your grandfather. Once released from your cri de coeur, I realized that it's truly a genre-breaker, a unique psycho-history, Totem and Taboo turned on its head. These medical giants devouring their children as they themselves crumble against the backdrop of a country frittering away its talents and achievements. Your book haunts me. I can think of no higher praise." - Mark C., Toronto

"A monument to staying and fighting. It is a prodigious and compelling yarn and I was drawn from page to page. Once I started, I couldn't put it down. 'Book' is a woefully inadequate descriptor. I learned more about my country and that time-and-place than I ever thought possible." - George O., North Vancouver, B.C.

"Dipping into your book is like a treat of very dense food -- I can't digest too much at once. On every page I found a sentence or phrase that rang like poetry, or was just so beautiful I had to read it again. Though non-fiction, the book reads like a fine novel...I never wanted it to end." - Patricia R., Toronto

"You have written such a fine book: beautifully thought out and written, memorable, haunting, restorative, evocative. I'm going to read it again because it is so very rich...it is a fine and lasting achievement." - Maryrose O., Toronto

"An engrossing and wonderful (and also gut-wrenching) experience. Beautifully written and achingly honest. It took a lot of courage and I feel grateful to you for having summoned it. Your book is harrowing but enriching at the same time. I guess the 'unpardonable sin' is simply succumbing to human fraility." - Mark S., Toronto

"I'm trying to avoid cliches, but your book is a monumental achievement. If you dissect those two words, they fit, despite their trite history together. Wow. To echo Shylock, you peel the hide off the academic/scientific Anglo elite, and not just in Toronto. The book also grinds to a puddle on a plate the Protestant ethic of 'grin and bear it' and the 'accepted' solutions when you can't. Your grandfather's letters from the asylum are almost too much. Worse is the silence they generated. You can read What Disturbs Our Blood as autobiography, biography or history, and all are fascinating. And, by the way, you can write with the best of them." - David K., Burlington, Ontario

"A magnificent piece of work. I stand in awe of your ease moving backwards and forwards in time, never losing the threads, but pulling them ever-tighter to the inevitable ending... Of all the rest of us, who could examine his or her life with such surgical precision? I found it epic, operatic and gripping throughout. Thank you so much for your generosity." - Ian E., Fergus, Ontario

"Your masterfully researched chronicle has overwhelmed my thoughts for days -- your carefully carved words, your study of facts and truth, your profound sense of personal equilibrium in response to the harsh stories you uncovered. This journey speaks to immeasurable sacrifice on your part." - Colin M., Shirley, B.C.

"Awesomely good writing. You may have gotten too good for non-fiction. It's like an explosion off the page. Maybe it's time to try a novel." - Stephen R., Manila, Philippines

"Let me commend you on a superlative piece of personal historiographic writing which illuminates to a compelling degree the traumas existing in each and every family. Your portrait of the Toronto medical community as well as life in Toronto in the 1950s is close to pitch perfect." - Monte M., Toronto

"Your writing is exquisite and I felt totally immersed. I felt like I was falling down a deep well into the dark depths of the unconscious...You have made yourself completely vulnerable in the writing of this book, which is now in the hands of the public. You are very brave." - Janice P., Toronto

"I'm amazed at what a tremendous feat you have pulled off. Not simply the astounding amount of information you have assimilated -- and disseminated -- but how feelingly and well you have conveyed it. How well you let the facts speak for themselves, when necessary; and yet what a powerfully poignant atmosphere you evoke. It was painful reading about your father; I veered from being furious with him to feeling great sympathy...I knew what was coming with your grandfather, and yet there was still such an impending sense of doom." - Kathleen B., Toronto

"So much of Toronto history is slipping away, books like yours are so important so that we don't forget -- or at least if we forget, we will be reminded.  I have been marvelling at what your grandfather accomplished, despite his demons, despite the fact the demons won. Your family myth-turned-real has, not surprisingly, caused me to consider my own family and its various demons. I'm not sure it will be possible to duplicate the digging you have done, nor am I sure I want to, but nevertheless I am looking back at what I do know and at least asking some questions. It's not the first time I've asked these questions, but your spirit has made the asking of them suddenly relevant again." - Eric E., Toronto

"I enjoyed your book so much and was emotionally very stirred by it. One night I dreamt I saw you at your book launch signing copies to a long line of children. They were all waiting for you, book in hand, to receive your signature. I wonder if it was all the lost, inner children that you have given life and voice to through your writing...a most fine work and a profound achievement." - Leah L., Toronto

"It took me an extra long time to read the last chapter. I had to stop every few paragraphs and wait till my eyes cleared. I can only imagine the pain it took to move from the beginning to the end of the book. I'm glad you're still climbing...I now know more about the history of health care than I've ever known and it actually went in. It's shameful how little we are taught about our amazing history or maybe it was just so dehumanized I was asleep!" - Barbara M., Toronto

"Your engaging, convoluted, tragic family history is primary, but the evolutionary threads of public health and mental health in Canada, and globally, creates a very rich, contextually rippling read. If that was not sufficient, your word smithing is a joy to consume -- so alive, creative and graphical. I am pleased to learn that after years of personal turmoil you have come to a place where you can love and be loved for who you are, with all your assets and liabilities rolled into one. A worthy destination for all of us and likely a place neither your father or grandfather ever found." - George G., Santa Fe, New Mexico

"I have been pondering your grandfather's obsessive belief in his 'unpardonable sin.' From my reading on the subject, I wonder if it might be the case that the chain of pain from your grandfather, through your father, and down to you, was a grand scheme of sorts, towards deliverance from the servitude of 'sin' (against yourself), and from the penal consequences thereof (your life). Not to mention all the lives of those you have touched through the creative plan (your book) whereto you send it..." - Susan O., Toronto

"I rave about your book to just about anyone I meet. It has had such an impact on my life. I had to put the book down at one point as there was a part that was so emotionally overwhelming I had to stop reading. I needed time to regroup, so to speak, as your book parallels my life in so many ways that it causes disruptions in my thinking!" - Cathy F., Thornhill, Ontario

"I simply could not put your book down, and gave up more than a few hours sleep. The poignancy of your commentary brought tears to my eyes. Your story inspires me in  my profession, that of elementary school principal, to remind myself that our childrens' lives are often complicated and sometimes filled with anxiety. I know that I now work even harder to look below the surface when a child is in difficulty and see the source of the anxiety, the behaviour and the words. Thank you for introducing me to your family. I will remember them for years to come." - Lily S., Toronto

"The book is wonderful and the tragic sense of loss for you and your family must have presented as many obstacles to the work as reasons to continue it...I put the book down reluctantly and I even found myself reading at the dinner table, a huge violation of family manners...I found the book to be perfect -- you have nailed it." - Linda M., Toronto

"I was brought to tears reading your very personal book, the solitude and tenacity it demanded, and the freedom you gained in its aftermath. It was wonderfully intimate and immediate and I felt like I was sitting across from you and listening to your journey and it was quite humbling. You honoured yourself, your grandfather and your father by telling their stories. They did not have the words nor the capacity, and beyond your very fine and intelligent writing, you carved out a hard-earned space within yourself to hold their enormous lives, and in the process, gave birth to your own. This is the second very important book you have written." - Lynda F., Toronto

"Your book is both fascinating and excruciating. I found myself desperately wishing everyone might have been met with more compassion. Their isolated pain in contrast with their incredible accomplishments is all the more tragic. Your grandfather's compassion in ensuring that everyone had free access to innoculations is deeply moving and deserves to be celebrated. We are so privileged not to have had to deal with the horrible illnesses that in the not-to-distant past brought so much suffering." - Liz K., Toronto

"An absolute masterpiece...I hung on every word...many passages I read aloud to my husband...I feel truly enlightened having read this magnificent memoir...this book must be translated into as many languages as possible." - Mary Ann M., Toronto

"Reading your book, I felt like I was walking around inside your skin, seeing the world through your eyes. It was such a privilege to be with you on your journey in its unfolding. With the recent death of my father, my own family ghosts were let loose. I have had moments of real consolation reading your story. Your journey has helped me grapple with my own nightmares and for that I am grateful." - A.K., Toronto

"Canadian history at its very best...a riveting psychological interpretation of what happens to good people who consistently neglect their own needs and inner struggles...a sparkling gift to Canada from James FitzGerald." - Eleanor C., Wemindji, Quebec

"You have written the book of your life -- literally and figuratively. As a journalist, you have proven that you are at the top of your profession, having done some amazing research. As a writer, you have shown that you are at the top of your game, having written a real page-turner. What Disturbs Our Blood is a great read." - David R., Toronto

"After you spoke to our book club, we all agreed that over our almost 30 years together it was one of the most interesting discussions we've engaged in. You're an amazing author -- none of us wanted the evening to end. What you have experienced in your lifetime we could never imagine could happen to one person. If we had read it as a novel, we would have said it was a little far fetched! I was expecting you to be different than you were. You seemed like a very together, gentle man." - Mary Anne P., Toronto

"What Disturbs Our Blood is an amazing book. It's full of the usual made unusual, the surface created deeply, a gift to us all." - Edith V.B., Caledon, Ontario

"The writing skill is second to none. While the story is a dark one, I think it's a must read for all Canadians, from both a personal and historical perspective. I don't know how many times I thought to myself: "I had no idea!" - Gary R., Vernon, B.C.

"James was haunted by the silent ghosts of his father and grandfather, and starved of love, almost to death, as they had been. He had to find a way out, and like his Irish warrior ancestors whose blood coursed through his veins, he struck blow after blow against the enemies -- the lies, deceptions, and most of all, the terrible silence -- till the truth, his truth, and that of his forefathers, lay cowering and exposed, ready to be redeemed in the light of day. James redeemed not only himself, but his whole family. Gerry FitzGerald saved millions of lives and lost his; James FitzGerald saved his own life, and redeemed the spirit of his family, past and present." - Teressa G., Orangeville, Ontario

Never before have I written a fan letter. At age 79, I’ve read hundreds, probably thousands of books. Yours is the most rewarding ever. Bravo, and thank you.
— Dean W., Toronto

"I cannot express how much I enjoyed your book. Your abilty to pull together so much research, fitting the pieces in cleverly to read like a first class mystery, boggles my mind. Your use of the English language is a treat and your talent to peak curiosity at just the right moment is masterful, to say the least...Thank you for a thoughtful, powerful book." - Suzanne E., Toronto

"What a ride! What an education! I have not had anything grab me like this for quite some time...I could not put it down." - Peter C., Toronto

"I have rarely read anything written with such stark honesty and integrity." - George K., Clones, Ireland

"My father gave me your book and I literally did not put it down until I finished it...I just wanted to tell you what a great book you have written and how much I share your pain and joy of family." - Michael L., Toronto

"A beautifully written book...very affirming to read of the psychological costs of growing up in the weirdly constrained world of Toronto's WASP establishment...I admire the work you've done to make peace with your past..." - Jane S., Vancouver. B.C.

"I just finished reading your astounding book and I enjoyed it immensely. Being in the medical field, it has been an eye-opener to read about such progressive steps in medicine at the turn of the 20th century. Your historical research is astonishing and I congratulate you sincerely for such an important work." - Dr. Victor A., Toronto

"I found your book a very compelling and provocative read. There are so many ways to look at the life arc of successful men. One of course is to look at the shadow of the father. My perception of that era in Toronto was of a stuffy, cloistered world but your depiction shows another side of it -- the place to be in the world of medicine and even a jazz nightclub scene. For my parents, it was ballet, touring New York shows, golf and exclusive clubs filled with mostly boring people armed with effective barbs to 'cut you down to size.' " - Michael G., Toronto

"This is a gutsy book which I think may have saved your sanity. I salute you for the courage the book reflects and for your tenacity in researching it with such thoroughness and care. Your writing style, bringing key people into the present tense as you offer pieces of their stories, worked very well. I felt I was moving inside these people and through the history of the time. 

It is a curious and sorry thing thing how some fathers, maybe many, prove so incapable of nurturing their children, of just plain showing love for them. Tragic because the consequences are huge, as you well know. Alas, there is no handbook for parenting, just hard experience, and by the time we become aware of our mistakes (if we ever do), it may be too late." - Don V., Saanichton, B.C.

"I've just finished reading 'What Disturbs Our Blood' and even though I'm (almost) at a loss for words and only uttered a simple 'Wow' when I finished it, I want to tell you how much I appreciate what you've done -- not only for you and your family but especially for others who, like you, have our own suppressed stories to share. Congratulations, and many, many thanks for your honesty and courage and skill." - Paul D., Midland, Ontario

I read your book; read it again; read it twice more; studied the bibliography; re-read portions of the book and inwardly digested its contents. I can’t remember doing that with any of the books in my almost 66 years of voracious reading. I have no critic credentials whatsoever, but in the case of ‘What Disturbs Our Blood’, I thought: ‘Aha! Finally a book which contains enough wrenching honesty to be truly believable.’  It should be quickly adopted by any decent university...
— Anne T., Toronto

"Your tale is specific: your family history intermixed with grief and madness and extraordinary feats and the beautifully wrought tale of your struggle to understand. And then the history of Toronto! I found myself cycling furiously along College Street near University Avenue a few days ago, pausing to reflect on the histories of those buildings. I will never cycle down Balmoral Avenue again without wondering about the histories lingering about the fancy facades.

But beyond the engagement with your particular story -- so movingly and almost desperately told -- I think many readers must transport your quest into their own lives, wondering about those things both spoken and not, the impenetrable silences, the contradictory stories that limn disturbance and deep tragedy. It made me want to run out and explore my own family history... - Tracy H., Toronto

"A book of such importance in my life...What an amazing writer you are. Every sentence, every phrase thrills me, it flows, it swims with meaning. it pours truth. Thank you so much. And I have only got to page 59!" - Marion M., Toronto

"It has been along time since I sent an author a fan letter; I believe it was the Anglo-German W.C. Sebald. But I have just finished reading 'What Disturbs Our Blood' and I am overwhelmed. What a superb book, a very impressive achievement..." - David S., Toronto

"A fascinating and wonderfully written book. I commend you for an exceptionally fine job combining your grandfather's and father's tragic journeys, your personal memoir, and the nightmarish history of psychiatry. You have put human faces, albeit hideous ones, on leading historical figures of psychiatry. These 'organicists' had -- an have -- no shame." - Leonard F., San Francisco, CA

"I was enthralled by your paging-turning, ancestral biography. Your story was salve to my own father-grandfather hauntings. I felt vindicated in so many ways by your powerful prose. My family ghosts were so very similar to yours...you tapped into nearly every issue that disturbed my family's blood...

In reading your odyssey, I'm liberated from so many memories that haunted me and my family of origin...Thank you for opening this Pandora's Box and offering your tragedy and your redemption as a gift so that similar wayfarers may also heal." - Gillian P., Toronto

"I picked up your book on a whim. When I started to read it, I couldn't put it down and I am reading it again. I had such a mixture of feelings and sensations on reading your excellent book -- so well written, so interesting, so honest. You have been on quite a journey, and still on it, no doubt...

I felt compelled to write you as I feel we are some sort of kindred spirit, both  haunted by the past through dreams and who have taken the road less travelled....To paraphrase the American psychologist Virginia Satir: 'The starving dobermans in the basement are baying for release.' 

Depression -- that over-used word describing anything from the black pit of despair to mild melancholia to feeling a bit low and fed up -- is in fact a gift. It heralds change and is the wisdom of the mind telling us that all is not well…

It seems there is a parallel process going on in Canada and here in Ireland around mental health (and I suspect it's probably the same the world over, certainly the western world), namely:

Only an M.D. really counts. Everything must be evidence-based or it's mumbo jumbo. That which can be explained, classified, boxed, specialized and expertized is still revered and taught. Here in Ireland, regulation of psychotherapy has been talked about for the last fifteen years with absolutely nothing done about it, mostly due to in-fighting between medics, psychologists and therapists. Now it's on the back burner because of the recession. There are to be further cuts in mental health, so I think I'll be dead and buried by the time it comes around. Actually, at present. I would be very leery of any regulation as I suspect the whole thing would be horribly mismanaged and humanistic psychotherapy would be out with the lepers, whereas currently we do have a voice, albeit a voice on the margins.

I think the global recession and breakdown of institutions is all to the good.  Hopefully we can rebuild in a way that places checks and balances on our professions (banking, medicine, media, religion, etc.) Our patriarchal institutions have survived through hierarchical structures and held together through power, control and status which has led to collusion and cover-up (e.g. the Catholic church and sexual abuse).

I get the impression from your book that your grandfather and father, being part and parcel of the largely male medical establishment, got so caught up in new discoveries they became completely subsumed and driven by ambition. Some of their motives of course were to do good, but somewhere along the line, if there are no checks and balances, or people asking, 'Hey, is what we are doing right? Is it ethical? Are we doing good?', then we risk falling into the old power and status trap and the addiction of do-gooders to 'fix'. 

I find it in my own profession as a psychotherapist where people are so caught up in 'doing good' that they lose sight of their own power trip and the possibility of making a mistake. Anyone in the caring professions will and does make mistakes - but will they admit it?  Very rarely, for that means having to get off their high horse and examine the possibility that you might have made a very grave error affecting someone's life. Luckily, some therapists are required to have regular supervision which can check hubris and arrogance. Psychiatrists do not -- which is pretty gob-smacking when you think of the power they have to drug people, and worse, section them.

I feel your father and grandfather both experienced a sense of doubt and inner questioning. But they had nowhere to go to cope with the horrors that were emerging, nowhere to debrief, because they were in positions of power and authority. The shame and dishonour was just too much and this is why these institutions keep covering up. But thankfully this is now breaking down with rich people collapsing into bankruptcy, the church finally being called to account, etc. We are beginning to talk and get the emotions out.

I feel your father and grandfather were not just very intelligent but also sensitive and creative. But because they were men, they had to be providers and successful ones at that. So their animas or feminine side -- which is chaotic, disturbed, emotional, artistic, right-brained, poetic, dreamworld, all those things that so many women have been locked into mental hospitals for being -- were split off. Their souls could no longer go on in such narrow, Hitlerian confinement. Unfortunately, they were drugged and tortured with ECT and insulin shock treatments -- utterly barbaric -- instead of being allowed to explore their doubts and dreams. Absolutely tragic. 

But what you are doing is healing for yourself and for their memory." - Sarah Krzeczunowicz-Bowman, Dublin, Ireland, 2012

"What I am really grateful for is FitzGerald's candour about himself, which takes such courage and encourages others to undertake their own process of self-discovery [in his case] through psychotherapy. One of my favourite quotes from Freud comes from his conclusion to a chapter in 'The Interpretation of Dreams' in which he uses one of his own dreams as a specimen and then reveals all the conflicts that are expressed by the dream. He eventually draws a line and will interpret no further, at which point he writes: 'If anyone should feel tempted to express a hasty condemnation of my reticence, I would advise him to make an experiment of being franker than I.' It seems to me that FitzGerald has taken up Freud's challenge and been even more self-revelatory." - Robin R., Toronto

"In my opinion your book is a masterpiece and as great an accomplishment as your grandfather's and father's in the struggle to combat human misery." - Jeff M., Toronto

"I congratulate you on your fine book. It really disturbed my blood this Christmas season. I think of Adam Phillips' line: “The best lives, like the worst lives, are driven lives.” For better and worse, there is no escaping the unconscious and the drivenness of our lives. I was thinking of the many things that resonated for me in the book, but you know it all reduces to that sad, painful and perplexed look of a kid looking for his lost father.  

Our emotional lives are unsupportable (Michael Eigen) and its our evolutionary state. We try our best, but our emotional equipment produces impacts we can’t process, so we rid ourselves in a myriad of ways just to get on with things -- and look at the wonderous creations that come of this -- but what we exclude then starts its own disturbance. The more I live the more I think we are in a real balls up, where destruction is built into the way things are; there is a pattern and I like the looks of it less and less the more I know.

Your book also brought to mind Northrop Frye’s excluded initiative in language where what is excluded or implicit in one mode of language becomes explicit in the next. It has always haunted me because it pointed to some evolution possible, some intensification of consciousness that is taking us somewhere. Beyond all journeys?

Thank you for this book." - Stewart M., Toronto

"I would like you to know that reading your story was, for me, powerful on every level of being human. Thank you for your hard work and honesty and even though I know it is your story, I know I am not alone with my gratitude." - Jackie S., Toronto

"I was not able to put your book down. You are incredibly skilled as an author, sleuth and researcher. I learned about the social norms of our parents' and grandparents' eras, the changes in public health, immunology, psychiatry. etc. My emotions ranged from despair to joy. I am so impressed, and have been talking about the book to all who will listen." - Cyndy V., Toronto                         

"Your book is a fascinating, multi-generational epic. Heroic, in a word. It could easily be the finest fiction and yet the truth is magnificently stranger. I think of Ecclesiastes: 'With much wisdom comes much sadness.'  The enlightened souls lament. - Robert W., Toronto

"A tad tedious...I could not finish this book...many times I just wanted to throw it down in frustration....sorry, James, I thought you were a little over-dramatic and a little on the whiney side." - Karen Boothroyd, goodreads.com  

"In the final image of you striding up the Avenue Road hill, I see 'Telemachus in Toronto', returned, redeemed and released, having traversed ancestral plains of achievement, ascending from their underworlds of torments, enlightened and alive. Thanks for a tremendous read in compelling social, medical, psychological history and personal catharsis." - Denis M., Sarnia. Ont.

"I don't know if you will be complimented, but 'What Disturbs Our Blood' is the kind of book Conrad Black thinks he can write but we know he can't." - Christian T., Whitehorse, Yukon

"I just finished reading your book a second time and I feel like I've lost a friend; I can't really get into anything else! I am so moved in many ways and at many levels: the desolate little boy who had the internal wisdom as an adult to partner with a warm woman; the professional who wove a complex story into a clear and powerful narrative; the psychoanalytical client who has the courage to confront material deep enough to be almost in the genes." - Ann R., Mississauga, Ontario

"I am in awe of your intensity and how you managed to keep at it, determined to heal the wounds of the past. The history of Toronto, Ontario, Canada, the health system or lack thereof, were all fresh and new to me. How you wove it together along with your intuitive understanding of the foibles of medicine and our implacable resistance to change was indeed elegant and compassionate." - Jonathan D., Caledon, Ontario

"I don't have enough good things to say about 'What Disturbs Our Blood.' I've earmarked page after page of passages that astound me with their unflinching insights and lyrical writing...a stellar example of the memoir genre." - Diane B., Toronto, Ontario

"Your book was pure adrenalin...People like me who have been touched by mental illness need writers like you to humanize the despair and make us feel less alone." - Deirdre B., Ottawa, Ontario

“I was enthralled reading your book. Each day as I reported to work, I traveled north on Poplar Plains Road, crossing Balmoral on my way to St. Clair. Each journey, I struggled to comprehend the Dali-esque juxtaposition: the mundane reality of my life co-existing incomprehensibly with the living history of your book, the actual, physical bedroom of your family’s haunted soul. As well as your own painful story, you gave us so much else: the heretofore (to me) unknown history of Toronto’s world-leading public health advances; insulin, vaccines and how they funded the University of Toronto. I read with amazement and gratitude for your diligent research as my streetcar wound its evening way around Connaught Circle on Spadina Avenue, screeching past history on your living pages. I read of empty rooms, devoid of love, the stuff of my own dreams, and felt the grey and silent sunlight in which you lived.” - Susan, Toronto

“After completing my first read of your book, I was impressed with your close attention to detail, especially the psychoanalytic history. I was also caught up in the search for your identity plumbing the depths of your father and grandfather. What I did not expect after this first reading was how neutral (dissociated) I felt. To tell you the truth, I was initially disappointed that you seemed to have so relatively little feeling. 

This bothered me for a few days after I finished your book. It then grabbed me soon after that your intimate search for the truth of your paternal legacies was hitting too close to my own experience. I am quite certain at some early point in your writing my neutral feelings was a defensive isolation of affect. I am certain this is so because when I purposefully read your book for a second time, my feelings returned with all of the richness of color to which I have been accustomed." - Gibbs Williams, psychoanalyst, New York City