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Family Ties And Struggles

Author Iris Rainer Dart generally writes of the nature of life-long friendships. Her best-known novel, "Beaches," became a box office hit starring Bette Midler.

Now in her latest work, "Some Kind of Miracle," she examines how mental illness affects two close-knit cousins.

Rainer Dart says, "The book is about the triumph of the human spirit. It's about two very lively young girls who write songs together when they're little kids and then in growing up, one of them is diagnosed with schizophrenia. And really the book is about how the power of the music and the closeness of relationship, help her make her way back through this terrible disease."

The story is somewhat autobiographical. Rainer Dart grew up with a cousin who suffered from schizophrenia.

Rainer Dart tells The Early Show co-anchor Julie Chen, "My cousin was much older than I was, so I was unable at that time, because I was a child, to do anything to help her. And so what I really wanted to know was in the many years that have passed since her diagnosis, what had happened in the world of mental health and how things have changed. I came from a family of immigrants where there was so much superstition and so many stigmas surrounding the disease and so many terrible thoughts."

Such thoughts included the mistaken ideas that schizophrenia was contagious or that it was the result of bad parenting, or that schizophrenics were necessarily violent, Rainer Dart notes. But after researching for her book, she is pleased to know there have been many advances in that field and the outlook for patients is much brighter.

With her book, she hopes to dispel some of the myths and misinformation. She says, "The miracle that I've discovered are the people: the friends, the family, and everyone who makes certain to be an advocate for their friend or relative."

Read an excerpt from "Some Kind of Miracle":

Chapter One

Most of the guests arrived at about four, parking their cars up and down Moorpark Street, slowly trailing in, carrying bouquets of flowers or white bakery boxes tied with string. Dahlia looked at the clock on the mantel again, relieved that it was already five-thirty and there hadn't been even the tiniest incident yet.

She was sure the success of the day was thanks to the fact that all the fingers on both her hands were tightly crossed. For an hour and a half, she'd kept her hands in her pockets so nobody could see them, because her mother always laughed when she did superstitious things like that. But this time it was actually working.

Thanks to her crossed fingers, any outsider who happened to look in the window might think this was an ordinary family gathering. No Sunny locking herself in the bathroom screaming out death threats to everyone at the party by name, no Sunny keening and wailing about how some unidentified "they" were after her. No Sunny frantically rushing around the house destroying every breakable item in her path. Today there was just the music.

Just Dahlia and Sunny sitting at the baby grand piano singing their best songs, surrounded by friends and family. Everyone seemed to love the new one they'd finished writing just that morning as Sunny belted out each verse in her big, husky voice. And every time she came to the chorus, Dahlia chimed in, harmonizing in her pure, childlike voice, their sound enchanting the friends and family who swayed to the music, smiling.

Most of them were gazing at Sunny, probably wondering how a pink-skinned, blue-eyed blonde like her could have been born into this olive-skinned, dark-haired family.

"Recessive genes," Uncle Max said with a shrug when anyone asked him.

"The milkman," Aunt Ruthie joked with a grin when anyone asked her. Dahlia didn't get why everyone always laughed at that.

Sunny was seventeen and curvy, and her long, wavy hair was as white as the piano keys she stroked and pressed and cajoled until glorious tunes rose from them. Tunes she fashioned from her tormented psyche. And always, from the moment her graceful fingers began to play until the last song was over, nobody who was listening ever yawned or stole a glance at the clock, wondering when she would finish. They were much too caught up in the spell of the songs, the way she delivered them and the way their melodies transported her.

But Sunny never saw their awestruck gazes, because she was far away in what she sometimes called the "secret garden" of her songs.

"Music isn't just something I play or write," she told Dahlia many times. "It's a place where I get to go." And it was clear when the others watched the way she threw back her head and closed her eyes as she played and sang that she was unquestionably elsewhere, gone into some parallel world where none of the rest of them could travel, including the twelve-year-old Dahlia singing along, pale and dark and looking particularly frail because of the inevitable comparison to the dazzling Sunny.

Usually when the song was over and Sunny turned to discover the relatives fishing in their pockets and purses for handkerchiefs to wipe their teary eyes, she laughed an embarrassed laugh at their emotional reaction and told them they were "too cute." Today while the girls were singing their original "Stay by My Side," Dahlia spotted Aunt Ruthie making an O with her thumb and fore finger and holding it up to Uncle Max to say, "So far so good," and she was sure everyone else in the room was thinking that same thought.

Unfortunately, it was only a few minutes after the performance, while Dahlia stood at the buffet table hoping nobody noticed she was sneaking slices of corned beef from her own plate and feeding them to Arthur the dog, that the shrill cry went up from Aunt Ethel warning the others that they were on the brink of another Sunny emergency. And Dahlia hated herself for uncrossing her fingers so she could eat.

"Maxieeeee!" Aunt Ethel squealed, causing everyone in the room to look up from his or her sandwich. "Naked" was the only word Dahlia's mother's sister could get out as she dropped her paper plate on an end table and headed for the screen door to the front porch.

All the family members left their own plates behind, rushing outside to look west toward Coldwater Canyon, where Sunny was now sprinting away from the house wearing only the red rubber band that held her white-blond hair in a ponytail. All of them lined up on the porch looking down the wide street after her except Sunny's older brother, Louie, who could chronicle his entire life, after the age of five, around landmark Sunny emergencies and was no longer fazed by them. Louie stayed inside, filled his plate from the tray of sweets, and turned on the TV to watch a baseball game.

Now Sunny was halfway down the block dodging traffic, and Dahlia was relieved that the most anyone in the family could see of her was her very white back and her pretty white tush bouncing along as she moved down Moorpark Street, the long ponytail swaying from side to side against her white shoulders. Many of the astonished drivers who had just passed Sunny now drove by the family, red-faced and tugging at their rearview mirrors to get another look.

Dahlia saw Uncle Max hurry back inside the house, letting the screen door slam behind him. An instant later the door flew open and he bolted out onto the porch, now hanging on to the floral-print throw Aunt Ruthie always flung over the couch when company came, in case anyone spilled food from the buffet ...

The foregoing is excerpted from "Some Kind of Miracle," by Iris R Dart. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced without written permission from HarperCollins Publishers, 10 East 53rd Street, New York, NY 10022

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