Riverwoods resident’s book details late son’s life with mental illness
Riverwoods resident Judy Norris wrote and illustrated her book "What Went Wrong?" The proceeds of the book benefit servicemen suffering from traumatic brain injuries. | Brian O'Mahoney~for Sun-Times Media
Updated: October 22, 2012 8:02AM
RIVERWOODS — For more than two years, Riverwoods resident Judy Norris pieced together the memories of her son’s life.
The end product — a labor of love that turned into her self-published book “What Went Wrong?” — uses original artwork and writing to explore the events that culminated in Robby Norris’ untimely death a decade ago.
“He never got his due,” Norris said of her son, who battled mental illness.
Norris described him as a selfless and kind individual who eventually succumbed to schizophrenic “inner demons.”
“I want people to see what an amazing person he was,” she said.
Norris, who grew up in Wilmette and Winnetka, is a New Trier High School alum and graduate of the Art Institute of Chicago. She spent time living in Los Angeles, where she taught in the city’s school system and also worked with neuropsychiatric patients at a UCLA hospital to help them express themselves through art.
A mother of four and accomplished abstract artist, “What Went Wrong?” is Norris’ first foray into writing. The book serves as both a memoir of her family’s experience in trying to save Robby, as well as a reflection on Norris’ work.
She explained that the discovery of her son’s journals after his death revealed that he recognized, at an early age, that his mind was tortured.
Norris also later realized her style of art changed during Robby’s descent, particularly when he was in and out of psychiatric care facilities and wandered from one city to the next.
One recurring theme of her paintings was the image of a chair, which Norris later interpreted as a symbol of remembrance for a lost loved one.
Norris said her story is not an objective report on mental illness but rather the testimony of a parent with a child in need.
“It might be helpful for someone else to read to see how we had to deal with it, and to know they’re not alone,” Norris said.
On a personal level, the book is an honest way for Robby’s siblings to remember their brother, and for his 10 nieces and nephews to know him, too, she said.
Norris said her granddaughter asked to read the book before it had been published for a school project.
Afterwards, the 12-year-old created shoe box art to represent her uncle. On the box’s surface were words and photographs of Robby. The box’s contents displayed his inner turmoil and suffering, Norris said.
“To benefit from a book like that, to celebrate the uncle she never knew, is the greatest gift,” she said.
Today Norris paints with bright and vivid colors. As a side project, she’s making artwork with suns at the request of her grandchildren.
“I’m feeling pretty happy,” she said. “If (Robby) were alive today he would say ‘good job, mom.’”
Norris will share her story at The Book Stall, 811 Elm St., Winnetka, at 7 p.m. Oct. 23. All proceeds from the sale of “What Went Wrong?” will support servicemen suffering from traumatic brain injuries, Norris said.