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SunLit Interview: After decades, Stephen Trimble came to grips with a personal, but universal story

Through "The Mike File," the author came to understand his relationship with the brother he lost -- and something about himself

Stephen Trimble has published 25 award-winning books as writer, editor, and photographer during 45 years of paying attention to the landscapes and peoples of the Desert West. He’s received The Sierra Club’s Ansel Adams Award for photography and conservation and a Doctor of Humane Letters from his alma mater, Colorado College. In 2019, he was honored as one of Utah’s 15 most influential artists.

Trimble, who grew up in Denver, speaks and writes as a conservation advocate and has taught writing at the University of Utah. He lives in Salt Lake City and in the redrock country of Torrey, Utah. For more about his work, see www.stephentrimble.net.  


“The Mike File,” the story of Stephen Trimble’s relationship with his older brother, is the product of an investigative and introspective look back at how society dealt with Mike’s mental health challenges in the latter part of the 20th century. SunLit editor Kevin Simpson connected with the author via Zoom from Guatemala, where he was vacationing. The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Kevin Simpson: “The Mike File” is a very personal story, but also one that speaks to broader societal issues. And I’m wondering how long this book had been percolating in your mind and what finally made you decide that you wanted to tell the story.

Stephen Trimble: I knew that I had unfinished emotional business with Mike. And over the years, as a writer in writing groups and talking with family, people would push me a little bit and say, you’ve got this story of your brother. That’s the biggest emotional story you have to tell. You’ve got to do something with it. And I was just never ready to do that. It was too incendiary, emotionally, for me.

And so it took the death of my two parents to really begin to make it safe for me to come back to it. And it was a year after my father died that I opened up that folder of stuff that we always called “the Mike file.” I hadn’t really yet decided that this was a book. I just knew that I needed to look at those records and letters and grapple with them. And that very quickly led to writing, and the writing led to a book.

UNDERWRITTEN BY

Each week, The Colorado Sun and Colorado Humanities & Center For The Book feature an excerpt from a Colorado book and an interview with the author. Explore the SunLit archives at coloradosun.com/sunlit.

KS: There were other layers to this personal story, and it seems like one of them that you first peeled back was the discovery, as a kid, that Mike was the product of your mother’s earlier marriage. Did Mike already know that?

ST: He must have known it from the beginning because he was a fully aware kid when my mom married my dad. He was 5 years old. When I was somewhere between 8 or 10 I wandered off into the garage and found this green metal file box that had old records and pulled out the folders and said “Stevie” and “Mike” and found Mike’s birth certificate that listed an entirely different guy as Mike’s father. And so I was completely flabbergasted and then taken aback and really felt betrayed. 

When I asked my mom about it, she just crumbled. That was the first time she told me about this brief, difficult, tragic first marriage. And so it was an important formative experience for me to learn that the world wasn’t quite as simple and predictable and completely dependable as I thought.

KS: You were a little kid at this time, eight years younger than Mike. Did that seem like a big gulf growing up? How do you describe the arc of your relationship with him?

ST: When I was little, Mike was my big brother who I adored – every little boy adores his big brother, right?  I was 6 when Mike left and so I was very small, those years when he lived at home and we shared a room. I have one tiny memory of sharing the room with Mike but a lot of those memories I just blocked out. As he headed into adolescence, he became angrier and angrier and more and more unpredictable. And I began to hide emotionally – and then hide physically.

The opening scene of the book is about hiding in the garage when Mike was confronting my mother in the kitchen, just caging her against the wall and screaming. I was terrified. And that’s where I was when my dad came home and found me. And very soon after that, my parents decided Mike simply couldn’t remain at home. He was committed to the state hospital and never lived at home again. And so over time, Mike began to gradually recede from my life. 

KS: When Mike’s issues started, he struggled in school, and it seems like that’s where he starts to get labeled. How do you think those labels over the years impacted his treatment? 

ST: It’s such an important question. There was a series of labels – paranoid schizophrenic, retarded, epileptic — they’re all labels. So I think the labels are crucial and the labels are often wrong. You know, Mike was labeled retarded to start with and struggled through elementary school and regular classrooms with my mother’s heroic tutoring, and then went into special ed. And then he got this label: schizophrenia.

As I talk with therapists these days, and they read what I’ve written and they look at the records and read his letters, especially to our mom, almost everyone who was a clinician thinks that label was wrong. He probably didn’t have schizophrenia. He was maybe bipolar, maybe autistic, maybe just struggling with depression and learning disabilities. We just don’t know. We can’t know now. But the labels broke his life and the labels were likely wrong.

One of the main things I’ve been thinking about as I’ve worked on the book is just how little progress we’ve made. And it really changes the way that I react even just walking down the street in seeing mentally ill people who are homeless. I now at least look at them and make eye contact and acknowledge that.

KS: In the excerpt that we’re running you do talk about seeing him in downtown Denver, from a distance. And at one point you compare and contrast your relationship to that of characters played by Tom Cruise and Dustin Hoffman in the movie “Rain Man.”

ST: That was the one time I saw him during the 10 years that he isolated himself from our family, between the time he was mainstreamed back to Denver and the time that he died. I saw him as I was driving through downtown Denver, waiting for a bus at a curb. And I couldn’t get myself over to stop. I just couldn’t quite do it. I was 20. I just didn’t have the empathy and agency to make that contact. And I knew at the time that I would regret it. And I still regret it all these years later. 

And the movie “Rain Man” really resonated with me, both when I saw it and when I look back at it. Mike was a bit of a savant, a little bit like the Dustin Hoffman character in “Rain Man.” The Tom Cruise character, Dustin Hoffman’s brother, is young and immature and kind of a jerk, but in the movie, he makes progress. He spends time with his brother, rediscovering his brother. And I wished I would have had that opportunity.

KS: This period when Mike was growing into adulthood was a time of change for American society’s treatment of people with mental illness.When you look back on the system as a whole, how did it serve Mike?

ST: Well, there wasn’t much of a system for really helping families in the 1950s. There were no child psychologists, really, there was no family therapy. My mom and dad had very few options, especially as middle class people without vast resources for private health. 

By the time Mike was (at the state hospital) a few years, the process of decentralization had begun. And they began moving people out of hospitals and into community health experiences, back in their own communities. Mike’s life really parallels the history of mental health treatment in America in the 20th century, step by step. And once that real support system of community health centers in Denver began to fade away, Mike was stuck in these halfway houses and boarding houses. 

And when he died, he was still living in one of those board-and-care homes. Not a good place. One of the therapists and social workers I talked to in Denver described those kinds of places as rat holes. But it wasn’t on the street.

KS: How did you find out about Mike’s death and what kind of impact did that have on you?

ST: So Mike was living away from us, he didn’t want any contact – it was too upsetting. I think my mother sent birthday cards and maybe a birthday check, but that was it. It was so upsetting for my mom, she did not want to talk. And so my dad deferred to that. And I was quite willing to defer to them. I was involved with my own life. I was in my 20s.

There was this enormously fraught moment in December of 1976 when my cousin came to my grandma’s house for dinner one night, and picked up The Denver Post on the way into the living room. And as she undid it, she saw this front page headline, above the fold: “Death came knocking and only Mike was listening.” And she began reading and realized that this was the story of Mike’s death.

That’s how my mom found out about the death of her son – on the front page of the Post. Mike had died in one of those boarding homes – the Carefree Guest House, ironically – and wasn’t discovered for several days. And the Post picked up on it and began running a series of articles about what was really a bit of a scandal, using Mike as the hook.

Mike really just disappeared from our lives and that was the beginning of my years of not thinking about him, and sort of avoiding the story until all these decades later, when I began working on the book.

KS: Your story seems to resonate today with our ongoing struggles dealing with mental health. Do you see parallels?

ST: Every time I do a reading from the book, or every time someone reads the book and then contacts me, almost everyone has a story to tell about a similar experience. This is a universal story. So many of us have someone in our lives struggling with a label or a diagnosis, or endless difficulties in their ability to live in society. Over and over and over again. 

KS: How did you feel when you finished working on this book? Was there a sense of closure, or that you’d found answers to unanswered questions?

ST:  I reached two places in the book that were enormously important to me – not just as a writer, but as a person, as an older man. One, I learned that Mike had an enormously powerful influence on me. And I explored to the best of my ability what that meant when I was a kid and how it played out in my life, how I tended to define myself in contrast to Mike, by defining myself as “not Mike.”

And then I decided that I could end the book with imagining a different version of Mike’s life if we had done everything right, if we had done the best practices that we’ve figured out and had access to every conceivable advantage in therapy. He might still be alive, I might still be in touch with him. So those two endpoints were enormously gratifying. I really felt like I had not only created a worthy memorial to my long lost brother, but I’ve reached a level of understanding of myself that I didn’t even know I was looking for.


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