CAPE ELIZABETH — It’s an angry day on the coast, with a heavy wind whipping up an agitated sea. Large swells of water churn toward the rocks and crash on the shore just outside the windows of Millicent Monks’ sprawling mansion.
Inside, all is calm. Classical music plays softly on a distant radio.
Monks, 77, excuses herself to lower the volume, and the clap-clap-clap of her footfall on the hard-surface floor bounces in the cavernous room. She resumes her seat at a table covered by a yellow tablecloth and places several pages of orderly handwritten notes at her side.
“It’s my fault, I guess,” Monks says, with an enormous laugh that belies her otherwise soft voice. “I just sort of take a deep breath and wonder how this all happened. I’ve just sort of got to focus and say, ‘Well, if I can be of help to other families and other people, then that makes it worthwhile.’ ”
It’s been more than two months since her memoir, “Songs of Three Islands,” has been in bookstores. The book, published by Atlas & Co. in late June, pulls back a many-generation veil of secrecy and reveals the toll of mental illness on an iconic American family.
Monks’ great-grandfather was the brother of industrialist Andrew Carnegie. For many years, she and her husband, Bobby, have lived in Cape Elizabeth on a family compound that includes many homes and dozens of immediate and extended family members.
Despite its enormous fortune, the family has been riven by tragedies stemming from mental illness that has passed from one generation to another.
FROM PRIVATE TO PUBLIC
The title of the book refers to three coastal locations central to Monks and her family: Cumberland Island off the Georgia-Florida coast, where Monks’ mother lived much of her life and where Monks spent considerable time a young woman; the family compound in Cape Elizabeth, which she calls Crescent Island in the book to protect her family’s privacy; and an island off the Downeast coast near Canada, which has become the spiritual base for her and her husband and will serve as the couple’s final resting place.
Reaction to the book has been strong and swift, and placed the famously private Monks squarely in the spotlight of public consumption.
Reporters, talk-show hosts and others eager to discuss the story have been calling. Mental health professionals have praised her courage for speaking out and invited her to New York, Washington, D.C., and elsewhere to share her story.
Most gratifying for Monks, she has heard from hundreds of people whose families have endured similar suffering. That’s why she wrote the book and put such a public face on what until now has been her private horror.
She hopes her decision to go public with her story will help others seek the help they need to put the pain of mental illness behind them and live healthier and happier lives.
“I think I am comfortable with the reaction,” she said, pausing to consider her words. “I am sort of surprised. I wasn’t expecting this when I wrote the book. I have close to 400 letters and e-mails from people, and mostly from people who have had terrible mental illness in their family. If writing the book helps in any way, if I can help in any way, that makes me feel the book was worthwhile writing.”
These secrets have been held close. Some of the couple’s closest friends knew the family history, and for years Monks was deeply involved in Portland’s arts community through her association with the now-defunct Ram Island Dance, which she founded and championed. Folks in the arts community knew at least shades of her story.
But most had no idea.
Monks gets a good-natured chuckle from their reaction.
“They call me up and say, ‘Where have you been hiding, Milly?’ But they’ve said nice things. People seem to like the book.”
THE STIGMA OF ILLNESS
The reason many friends express surprise is because the shame and stigma associated with mental illness have kept it hidden from public view, Monks said.
Only recently have people begun to understand the disease, both clinically and socially. Her immediate family’s clinical history is riddled with painful misdiagnoses, she said.
Monks’ message is firm: “We need to get over the shame. What we also need to do is share with each other, because we just don’t. People just don’t talk about it.”
Eugenia O’Brien, artistic and executive director at Portland Ballet, has known Monks and her husband for 35 years. She’s always been impressed with what she calls Monks’ “graciously quiet manner” and her ability to withhold judgment of others.
“You always feel that she understands what you are feeling, and it’s because she already has lived several lives,” O’Brien said.
She believes there is no better role model than Monks to lead people out of the darkness.
“What gives her story so much more power is that many people feel that wealth shields you from certain adversity.
It doesn’t,” O’Brien said. “Her voicing her story in today’s world is thrillingly shocking. If Milly can catch people’s attention, she’s done a world of good.”
Monks is happy to play that role, although she hopes her life will quiet down again soon. She feels the need to write again – maybe poetry, most certainly some journal writing.
She would also like to sing again, and maybe sit down at the piano, “which I can’t play at all, but I love trying.” A dance lesson or two may also be in her future.
Mostly, she seeks peace.
“I need to find someplace where I can feel more settled than doing all these other things. But I don’t know if that’s going to happen for a while,” she said.
Monks possesses the wisdom to know that whatever her future holds is somewhat out of her hands. Just as the course of her life has taken unlikely twists, “Songs of Three Islands” has taken her to places she never imagined possible.
She’s grateful for its reward.
“I think sometimes somebody else up there wrote it other than me,” she said.
Staff Writer Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or at: