Healing Words


Illustra­tion by
Jaylene Arnold

pages with ink blots and words fall into a book

The most joyful and devastating moments of Vince Granata’s life—the birth of his triplet siblings, Chris, Lizzie, and Tim, and the death 22 years later of their mother, Claudia—are inextricably, tragically linked. 

“Tim’s birth also means her death,” Granata, CAS/MFA ’18, writes in his 2021 memoir, Everything Is Fine. “It means her pain, my pain, his pain.”  

One afternoon in July 2014, Tim, a hulking, 270-pound college wrestler who had been battling schizophrenia for the last several years, bound 58-year-old Claudia’s wrists with duct tape in the living room of the family’s home in Orange, Connecticut, an affluent, leafy suburb of New Haven. The last thing the pulmonologist-turned-math teacher saw was her child—her fierce love for whom was no match for the ferocious delusions that tormented him—bearing down on her with his powerful fists, two serrated knives, and a pair of sledgehammers. 

“Tim’s demons, electric in his ill mind, convinced him that the woman who had made him peanut butter sandwiches when he was a grass-stained child was the source of his constant pain,” Granata writes. “These delusions, schizophrenia’s unchecked crescendo, raged in his head, a rising tide flooding him in madness.”

Granata, then 27 and a few years out of Yale, was helping a little girl at a summer camp in the Dominican Republic sound out the words in the Spanish translation of Oh, the Places You’ll Go! when his father, Attilio, called with the news: “Tim killed Mom.” With that, Granata was thrust into a dark and hellish place that would take him years to begin to understand. 

Schizophrenia is rare, affecting about one-half of 1 percent of the US population, according to estimates from the National Institute of Mental Health. Most diagnoses occur in people’s late teens to early thirties, although symptoms—which include delusions, hallucinations, disorganized thinking or speech, and a retreat from daily life—emerge earlier in males. 

While the disease presents differently in each person—“schizophrenia is not a single enemy,” Granata says—the brutality it manifested in Tim is uncommon. A star athlete who made the dean’s list, he developed severe depression at the end of his freshman year at Lehigh University. His illness “began as a whisper, a sadness in his voice,” Granata recalls. A diagnosis of schizophrenia soon followed. 

The incurable illness can be managed with therapy and medication—which Tim refused. Only after he threatened suicide and was admitted to a psychiatric hospital for three weeks in early 2014 did Tim reluctantly take meds to keep at bay the demons in his head, which he communicated with through Google, typing: I’m sorry ill stop now, I’ll act like a man now, please don’t kill me.

But as soon as he was released, Tim—who threatened to kill his parents if they admitted him again—flushed the pills down the toilet in his childhood home, where he was living after dropping out of Lehigh, just a semester shy of graduation. Five months later, he attacked Claudia while she scrolled through used jewelry listings on eBay. 

In the months following the tragedy, Granata, awash in anger, was panicked at the realization that “I’m going to think about my mother’s death, in some way, every day, as long as I live.” Indelible in those thoughts was Tim. 

“All of my memories felt tainted,” he writes. “My mother’s death shrouded the past, even the most innocent moments—Tim, a blanketed infant on our mother’s lap, reaching for her glasses, each lens the size of one of his hands. Even that memory, a single image, would catalyze a reactive chain, lead me to their final moments together, to our mother’s body on the family room floor.”

When he failed to find healing at the bottom of a bottle, Granata sought out a more productive outlet. He’d harbored a passion for writing since elementary school; it was something Claudia had nurtured until her death. 

“It’s a little selfish, but I realized that if I was going to live the rest of my life angry at Tim, it would destroy me. It would tear me apart from the inside,” he says. Writing enabled him “to approach Tim as the brother I had known and loved for, at that point, 22 years. While it was impossible to set aside what happened, I had to see him as my brother again.” 

At first, Granata could only view Tim through a lens of anger. “In the beginning, the writing was terrible. I was still seething, so I set it aside until I got to AU.”

The late Richard McCann—the beloved literature professor and writer who died in January 2021—gently steered Granata away from his rage and encouraged him to lean into his grief. “I came to AU to write fiction, but a week or two into Richard’s nonfiction class, nothing was more urgent than this story. Richard had a tremendous impact on me: not just on my writing, but on my ability to survive the writing.”

Granata began by digging into his brother’s medical records and Google searches and his mother’s text messages. Three months after Claudia died, he visited Tim at Whiting Forensic Hospital, the maximum-security facility where he was being held until trial. They hugged and even laughed, but during that first visit, Granata only had the courage to ask his brother a single question about their mother: Do you miss her? Thus began his weekly treks to Whiting, during which he began to see Tim as “not the monster I conjured in my dreams,” but as his little brother.

Like the visits, the writing was gut-wrenching but cathartic. The words on the page became Granata’s thesis project, out of which Everything Is Fine was born. The book is named for “the lie we told each other”—code that things with Tim were anything but. 

The next emotional gauntlet was sharing the book with Tim, who in November 2015 was found not guilty by reason of insanity and committed to 60 years in a state mental facility. “I was writing this over a span of years. In the beginning, when his treatment was taking hold, I would speak to him about the book, but I couldn’t be certain what he understood. He’s much more stable now and read a draft before it was published,” Granata says of Tim, who’s been on medication for several years.

“The fact of this book existing must cause him pain, but it blows me away how supportive he’s been,” says Granata, now a creative writing doctoral student at the University of North Texas. “I think he understands that one of my goals was to show that he’s much more than the tragic thing that happened to his family.”

Granata knows that his mother, too, would be proud of the book—a powerful portrait of love and loss that culminates in what she was never able to offer Tim: forgiveness. 

“I hope the book shows what a selfless person she was—someone who, as complicated as Tim’s story was, would quite literally give her life for her children.”


Last great book you read?

Negative Space by Lilly Dancyger is a stunningly beautiful and complex portrait of the author’s father, an artist who struggled with heroin addiction. It’s mind-blowing—unlike anything I’ve ever read. 

Best time to read?

Just about any time is a good time to read. I’m working toward a doctorate at the University of North Texas, so I’m usually not able to cognitively engage in the hour before I go to bed. 

Best place to read?

My reading alcove at home. It’s less about the space and more about the two dogs that cozy up in my lap. 

Any guilty pleasures?

I’ve been trying to read some stuff I wouldn’t normally, like Colton Whitehead’s zombie novel, Zone One. 

Book you’ve read the most?

In the process of writing my book, I read H is for Hawk a couple of times. Helen Macdonald mourns her father by adopting and raising a hawk—it’s an engrossing and complex story about the ways that grief can channel itself. I also read a collection of poems that Richard [McCann] recommended, What the Living Do, by his friend, Marie Howe. I’d have it right next me when I was writing; it’s a beautiful eulogy to her brother. 

You’re struggling to get through a book. Do you push through or put it down?

I feel guilty if I don’t finish. Even if I’m not connecting with a book, I try and find a way to push through. 

Favorite bookstores?

Politics and Prose. I had a job caring for an elderly poet and we’d hang out in the café. I love every part of that bookstore. I also enjoy Porter Square Books in Cambridge, Massachusetts. 

You’re hosting a dinner party for three authors, dead or alive. Who’s on the guest list?

Toni Morrison and Margaret Attwood are going to be there. Richard too.