Pat Capponi, a Toronto author and advocate on mental health and poverty issues who wrote with lived experience of both, published her first book, Upstairs in the Crazy House: The Life of a Psychiatric Survivor, in 1992. It was a memoir of Ms. Capponi’s own hospitalizations in psychiatric wards following horrific childhood abuse, as well as a chronicle, both clear-eyed and compassionate, of living under appalling conditions with others discharged from mental health facilities in a boarding house in the city’s Parkdale neighbourhood.
At the book launch held on the second floor of the Parkdale Activity-Recreation Centre (PARC), where Ms. Capponi worked for many years, figures from the Toronto publishing world mingled with street people and former psychiatric patients – or, as the writer referred to them, “my folks.”
Beverley Slopen, Ms. Capponi’s agent, remembers it as “the craziest book launch I’ve ever been to,” recalling how these marginalized members of the Parkdale community picked up their copies of Upstairs in the Crazy House – and then promptly sat down all around the room, on chairs or on the floor, to actually read it.
“Most people talk at book launches,” Ms. Slopen says. “It was so sweet. ... I thought we should institute this for all book launches.”
The event was a demonstration of the principles of inclusion, the desire to bring people together across “gulfs of class and labels” that Ms. Capponi expressed in a video recorded the month before her medically assisted death at 70 on April 6. Those principles guided the writer and advocate all her life, earned her allies in politics and publishing and psychiatry, and led to her being named to the Order of Ontario in 1993 and the Order of Canada in 2015.
Ms. Capponi believed that people with lived experience should have a seat at the table on matters that concerned them – and, through leadership programs she launched and ran, taught “her folks” to sit on the boards of institutions and take an active role in shaping policy. “I was continually surprised by the degree of resistance to the notion that we – those directly affected – should have more of a say in how we are housed and treated,” she wrote.
In addition to her writing, Ms. Capponi served on a dizzying number of boards and committees herself – from the advisory committee of the City of Toronto’s Mayor’s Task Force on Discharged Psychiatric Patients, which led to the establishment of the Gerstein Crisis Centre in 1989; to co-chairing the Mental Health Sub-committee of the Toronto Police Services Board; to co-founding RACI (Resident and Consumer Initiative), a group in which psychiatric residents and mental-health consumers met to get to know one another outside of a clinical setting.
“For the years that I knew her, she was just as comfortable talking to a group of people who were living in poverty or homeless, or had experienced violence against women or addiction, as she was talking to ministers and other people who hold power,” said Mike Creek, director of strategic initiatives at Working for Change, who lived in poverty for nearly two decades before signing up for a leadership and public-speaking program that Ms. Capponi had co-founded, called Voices from the Street.
“She was able to bridge that wide gap between how we see each other, that we have more in common than we have apart – and that it was important that we could sit at tables where we could talk."
Patricia Ann Capponi was born in Montreal on July 1, 1949, the second oldest of four girls and one boy born to Michael and Bernice Capponi (née Cluff) – and grew up in a frightful atmosphere of verbal, physical and sexual abuse perpetrated by her father.
In her books, Ms. Capponi described a family that might “have seemed fine, even ideal” as long as you didn’t look too closely. Her father, who worked at Canadair and Aviation Electric, was once the Santa Claus at an office Christmas party – and his daughter watched him hand out gifts jollily to the children of colleagues, then, on the drive home, pull over to brutally beat their mother in a parking lot, still dressed in the red-and-white costume.
Ms. Capponi eventually escaped this environment at age 18 by checking herself into a psychiatric hospital, where she was diagnosed with “adolescent turmoil.”
In Montreal, she lived in a rooming house on what was then Dorchester Boulevard, found academic and social success at Dawson College, had a short-lived marriage to a man, studied at Sir George Williams University, and worked at group-home agencies where she first found a way to heal herself through helping others.
But the years between 1967 and 1978 were also marked by what she called “frequent and imaginative suicide attempts” and multiple admissions to a number of different hospitals. She eventually left Montreal for Toronto – where, after one more stint in a psychiatric ward, she was moved to a Parkdale boarding house called Channan Court where she found the systemic failure to support ex-patients, but also a new mission.
It was the beginning of Ms. Capponi’s advocacy for those abandoned to slumlords or the streets after deinstitutionalization.
“The release of dazed ex-psychiatric patients into the community was hailed as a victory for human rights, and the government spoke glowingly of the supports that would assist these former patients to integrate into society,” the late journalist and activist June Callwood wrote in her introduction to Upstairs in the Crazy House. “Pat was one of the first anywhere to declare that those supports didn’t exist.”
Ms. Capponi was the force behind the Parkdale Working Group on Roomers and Boarders and helped journalists like City’s Jojo Chintoh go undercover to report on the conditions in boarding houses. In 1982, Ms. Capponi personally toured Larry Grossman, who was then Ontario’s health minister, through these squalid for-profit homes – and she was later called as an expert witness at no fewer than seven inquests into the deaths of ex-psychiatric patients.
In high school, an English teacher named Stan Asher had identified Ms. Capponi’s talent for writing and, in a moment she said was pivotal to building her self-esteem, suggested she join the student newspaper (and also rewrite Bye Bye Birdie for a student production).
In Toronto, Ms. Capponi would publish her own newspaper called The Cuckoo’s Nest with other former patients – and host and produce Cuckoo’s Nest Cable on Maclean-Hunter Cable 10 for two years, dressed in the cowboy hat and denims that made her instantly recognizable. (“There is something of the mythic western gunslinger about her appearance,” Ms. Callwood wrote.)
But another important boost to her confidence and her profile came when Ms. Capponi showed some of her writings to the Toronto Star columnist Joey Slinger, who had become her friend, along with his wife, the journalist Nora McCabe. Mr. Slinger shared her writings with Ms. Callwood – who then introduced her to Ms. Slopen.
When Ms. Slopen brought an early draft of what would become Upstairs in the Crazy House to Penguin, publisher Cynthia Good felt there was a lot of promise in the writing – and offered a highly unusual deal. “She gave Pat $2,000 to write the book and if she didn’t deliver or they didn’t publish it, she wouldn’t have to pay the money back,” Ms. Slopen recalls. “I thought that was terrific of her to do – and I didn’t know how wise it was.”
Upstairs in the Crazy House, written in part in a cottage borrowed from the actor Hume Cronyn, was followed by a number of other non-fiction titles including Dispatches from the Poverty Line (1997), The War at Home: An Intimate Portrait of Canada’s Poor (1999) and Beyond the Crazy House: Changing the Future of Madness (2003).
Ms. Capponi also wrote a column in NOW Magazine and contributed to the Toronto Star and The Globe and Mail – but, in 2006, made a surprising pivot after an happenstance encounter with HarperCollins Canada president David Kent in an Indigo bookstore.
Mr. Kent reminded Ms. Capponi that his wife, a fan of Upstairs at the Crazy House, had suggested she write mysteries set in the milieu she knew so well; she viewed it as a commission and set to work.
Last Stop Sunnyside (2006) and The Corpse Will Keep (2008) had as their heroine a Parkdale rooming-house resident turned private investigator named Dana Leoni – the protagonist’s name a tip of the cowboy hat to Donna Leon, a favourite crime novelist of both Ms. Capponi and Cynthia Good, who had become a close friend.
“We were an unusual friendship, because I’m Jewish, middle-class and straight and she’s Muslim and with a psychiatric past and she was gay,” recalls Ms. Good, who was part of “Pat’s Team” who helped her after she was diagnosed with lung cancer in 2019.
While Ms. Capponi made friends in high places, she continued to live a precarious existence – living without a bank account until a bank vice-president who sat with her on the board of the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health finally helped her set one up.
For decades, she lived in an oddly shaped room with a double bed, a sink, a bar fridge and – eventually – a microwave in a house on Huron Street. But she also had access to the porch, where she enjoyed talking with visitors, watching birds and the trees in the neighbourhood bloom.
That was her plan for this spring, but as the novel coronavirus spread to North America, Ms. Capponi moved up her date for medical assistance in dying (MAID). “She was afraid that hospitals would consider it non-essential … and she was afraid of getting coronavirus,” Ms. Good said. “She didn’t want to die that way.”
Ms. Capponi received MAID at the Princess Margaret Cancer Centre in Toronto. She leaves her niece Sabrina and great-nephew Quinton.
Less than a month before her death, Ms. Capponi uploaded a film to YouTube titled What Reva Taught Me, in which she summarized what she learned about working with people from different backgrounds from her friend and mentor Reva Gerstein, the mental-health advocate. In the film, she interviewed many of these people such as Deb Matthews, the former Ontario Liberal cabinet minister who says she “got the education that I needed” from Ms. Capponi in consultations leading up to the province’s Poverty Reduction Strategy, which she introduced in 2008.
“She showed government and she showed advocates that we could get stuff done if we work together: It need not be always adversarial,” Ms. Matthews said, noting that approach sometimes put her at odds with other anti-poverty activists. “She was strong and she was committed and she didn’t lay back, she pushed – but she did it in a constructive way and when progress was made, she would acknowledge progress being made.”
Ms. Capponi concluded her final video with a plea: “Please work on yourselves, work on the system, reach back, help people who are striving to be seen and need role models.”