Book review: Art reunites brother and sister in touching family memoir

Siblings Joan Boxall and Steve Corcoran grew up in Vancouver. After Steve was diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic, they drifted apart. This is the story of how they reconnected through art.

Joan Boxall's brother Steve Corcoran had schizophrenia. PNG

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Drawbridge: Drawing Alongside My Brother’s Schizophrenia

By Joan Boxall, Illustrations by Stephen A. Corcoran (Caitlin Press, Halfmoon Bay 2019)

$24.95 | 183pp

Joan Boxall and her brother Steve Corcoran grew up together in Vancouver. Joan went on to train as a teacher, marry and pursue her career. Steve briefly studied art and tried to emulate the satirical genius of Mad Magazine, hanging out on the edges of the city’s emerging counter culture. However, his life soon spiralled out of control and he was diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic.

Joan and Steve drifted apart over the years. Drawbridge is the story of how they reconnected in the last years of Steve’s life, largely through sharing the process of learning how to make art together.

Like the collages that Boxall describes, her book is an artfully arranged pattern of layered elements — her memories of family life, her years of puzzled estrangement from her brother, and the alchemical process of making art that allowed the siblings to come to a kind of mutual regard.

You do not need to be an uncritical supporter of medical model psychiatry to find this memoir powerful. Whether or not you share some of this reviewer’s skepticism about the medical model, Boxall’s narrative will move you and make you reflect on issues of love, intimacy and loss in your own family. (It is helpful in this regard to recall the brilliant headline that appeared in an early edition of the newspaper of the Vancouver Mental Patients’ Association — The Myth of Mental Illness and the Reality of Feeling Horrible.)

Joan Boxall. PNG

This is the author’s first book, but she is an accomplished magazine journalist, and the quality of her prose reflects that experience. She is not tempted to flatten the painful realities of her brother’s life with pity or romance. She tries valiantly to tell the truth in all its complexity, and provides memorable portrait of the brother she lost and then found again, as well as unsparing snapshots of the uncomfortable family dynamics among her and her other siblings as they try to cope with Steve’s hoarding, squalid living conditions and often erratic communication style.

This is a love story for adults, without any simple resolution or cheap redemption. It is illustrated with beautiful colour plates of Steve Corcoran’s art. Boxall’s text is a valuable complement to the artwork.

This book is a loving tribute to Steve Corcoran, as is the memorial award in his name established by his sister at the Emily Carr University of Art+Design.

• Tom Sandborn lives and writes in Vancouver. He welcomes feedback and story tips at


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