Professor breaks silence about grim family history


By Miguel Acevedo —

Mental illness is something that Tom Davis, J/MS 1989, knows all too well.

Professor Tom Davis signs copies of his new book at Alexander Library. Photo by Liz Fuerst He not only witnessed mental illness devastate his mother, Dorothy, but Davis himself has battled mental health issues throughout his own adult life, including his time at Rutgers University.

With the recent release of Davis’ book, A Legacy of Madness: Recovering My Family from Generations of Mental Illness, he has had to make many adjustments to his life and work schedule, touring the country for book signings and promotions.

Davis, a pro­fessor in the Journalism and Media Studies Department, admits the travel interferes with teaching and working as a regional editor for Jersey Shore Patch, a series of news websites.

Publicizing the book involves a tremendous amount of effort. “It’s hard to balance all these type of things,” noted Davis. “…I missed a lot of work at the beginning of the year. I have hired a publicist to help. It’s just too much for me to do alone.”

Despite the struggles to balance his various responsibilities, Davis hopes more people get his book, which has achieved moderate success and is available for purchase at most book stores across the country.

“The book has done well, probably much better than I expected,” he said. “I never thought it would be a best seller.”

The memoir details Davis’ discovering his family’s history of mental illness and trying to overcome his own demons and shed some light on a subject that had been shrouded in darkness and misrepresentation.

“It’s a book that is supposed to take the idea that mental health is not something on the lunatic fringe,” he said. “It is something that is in mainstream society; everybody is affected by it somehow, some more than others. ”

Davis, 44, lives in Metuchen with his wife, Kathleen, and three children. Davis is also on the Board of Trustees for the Daily Targum. He has a master’s degree in digital media from the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism and while writing about mental health issues for The Record of Hackensack, was chosen for the Rosalynn Carter Fellowship for Mental Health Journalism in 2004.

The process of writing the book proved challenging for Davis, who delayed writing about his experiences with his mother’s illness and his own struggles due to fear that he might upset her.

It wasn’t until his mother’s death in 2003 that he felt it was time to break his silence.

As he looked further into his history, Davis discovered several more members of his family have suffered with mental illness.

Through painstaking research, Davis learned that his great- grandfather, great-great-grand­mother, and great-uncle all committed suicide by gas asphyxiation. This revelation inspired Davis to delve further into his family’s grim history, not only for his own sake but for that of his children and future generations.

An excerpt from Davis’ book, on page 132, states: “In the following weeks I talked to nearly 100 psychologists, psychiatrists, law enforcement personnel, criminologists, and anyone who could analyze the information. I wanted to know more.”

Davis’ book offers hope that he and future generations don’t have to suffer like his mother and ancestors did.

“I am going for the greater good here,” he said. “I feel like this is something that could help a lot of people and help me.”