Susan McKeown is a renowned Grammy Award winning singer-songwriter gifted with a beautiful voice and brilliant intellect. When her partner went through an extreme state that devastated her family, she began a journey into understanding psychiatric disorders and madness that many family members have taken. One of her first discoveries was Kay Redfield Jameson’s work, and then she connected with NAMI.
Susan would be like other celebrity family members who become involved in mental health issues, except for a big difference: she kept learning. Susan didn’t stop with the mainstream stories or official sources of support. A cultural historian with a sophisticated understanding of the traditions and politics of her Irish homeland, Susan suspected there was more to be learned about mental health, and that diseases and medications were not the answers she was looking for. She continued to explore, and when she came to Portland Oregon, where I live, she discovered Portland Hearing Voices and Madness Radio.
Susan has brought mental health awareness into her art with the powerful and moving CD “Singing In the Dark,” and I was honored to tour with her for several shows in Ireland two years ago, adding my personal stories to her musical set. Susan’s music, which draws on Irish traditions as well as contemporary compositions, is woven together in her performances with rich storytelling about the people and history behind the songs she sings.
When I first heard Susan’s music I was deeply touched both by her soulful voice and by her choice of poems about madness to set to music, which included Anne Sexton, Theodore Roethke, and more. Her thoughtful understanding of these poets was a natural for a Madness Radio interview. I was also intrigued by her insights about the role of art, community, and music in providing opportunities for healing emotional suffering. Susan told me about the keening tradition in Ireland, a women-led community ritual of grieving that, in times of tragedy, brought forward painful truths and secrets to empower people through shared emotional expression. If only we had such opportunities today — or rather I should say, if only we can nurture and support artists such as Susan who are reminding us of how the past might show us the way forward to a new future.