As a child of the ’50s in Seward, Neb., Evonne Agnello knew she wanted to write a book — but had no clear idea what it might be about.
Most of her life, she wrote. For small newspapers, like the two her father owned; then a Minnesota paper she and her husband ran; then journals she kept going through good times and bad.
The bad was cripplingly painful.
At 84, the father she’d adored all her life killed himself. Four years later, her only sibling, brother Curt, committed suicide.
As a woman who’d battled depression most of her life, Agnello had read enough about mental health to know the facts. Beyond personal heartbreak, she knew having someone in the family kill themselves increased the chances of another suicide.
Two in the family?
“I was in a scary, scary place,” Agnello said. “Everyone has serious challenges in their life. This one almost pulled me down. I was wondering if suicide was my fate.”
It wasn’t. In the end, the story of her fight, of the mental illness she saw in her brother, became the book she always wanted to write.
“She showed up at my workshop, barely had a voice,” Tacoma Community College writing instructor Diana Marre said. “Then she started talking about this cosmic thing, and I could see she had something serious happening.
“I invited her out for coffee. In the group, she got lost, because there were a lot of outgoing people. I told her over coffee, ‘You’ve got to do this book.’ From that whole course, she was the only one who finished a project.”
It took her 12 years to complete, but “Shaking Shame from Mental Illness” is available online through Amazon or her own website, shakingshame.com.
She wrote the book in her Tacoma home — and even used the garage for part of the process.
“I worked on this book for 12 years, and twice put it on a shelf and walked away,” Agnello said. “The third time, I edited and edited and edited, and each time improved it. In the end, I had a series of stories, and couldn’t decide on the order to put them.
“I put up a clothesline in the garage and put each chapter on it with clothespins. Then I’d move them around until I thought it was the right order.”
It was emotionally challenging work, and therapeutic.
“I think I wrote to preserve my sanity,” she said. “Writing helps you think. Everyone should write.”
On a series of speaking engagements over the past 18 months — including an appearance next Tuesday at the University of Washington Tacoma — Agnello talks about her experiences. She makes it clear she’s not a mental health professional, that she doesn’t know the answers to all questions.
“I do know we have to talk openly about mental health,” she said. “This year, 1 in 4 Americans have a mental illness. We’re all touched by it.”
Marre, who helped edit the book and has attended one of her appearances, said Agnello presents a community service.
“I went to one of her first talks, and it turned into a group therapy session,” Marre said. “People came to talk. There’s a pressing need for a venue to just talk about mental health. Evonne didn’t write about global depression — she wrote her story.”
At one point, she and her father had to fly to Boston to have her younger brother, a bright, funny, talented man, committed to a mental health facility. Years later, dying of prostate cancer, her father sat in his car in a sealed garage, started the engine and let it run. He was found the next day.
“If there’d been a death-with-dignity law in Nebraska, he wouldn’t have been a suicide,” Agnello said.
Now 66, Agnello shares her story through her book and appearances, and shares those of others when approached.
“After my brother’s death, I went through the stages of ‘what should I have done differently,’ ‘how could I have changed the outcome,’” she said. “In time, I let go of that. It’s no good for your quality of life. I learned to accept what is.
“I’ve always been a Christian, but I found great comfort in meditation and Buddhism, and now I call myself a Christian Buddhist.”
Will she write another book?
“I made a list of seven different projects, eliminated one or two,” Agnello said.
“I’ll write until I die. I just have to find the time to write.”
HEAR THE AUTHOR
Evonne Agnello will speak at 6 p.m. Tuesday in Carwein Auditorium at the University of Washington Tacoma, 1754 Commerce St., sponsored by the University Bookstore.Larry LaRue: 253-597-8638 larry.larue@ thenewstribune.com