By Shannon Mullen
They say redheads shouldn’t wear pink, but Kathy Maloney has never been the type to let the theys of this world tell her what she can and cannot do. That explains why, late one Saturday afternoon in 1980, an 18-year-old Maloney ducked into the Simco shoe store in downtown West New York, New Jersey determined to buy the hot pink boots that had caught her eye earlier in the day.
Her timing was terrible. She heard the door lock behind her, felt a gun at her back, and quickly deduced she’d just stumbled into an armed robbery.
Two well-dressed men led her to a back room and forced her to sit on the floor with a handful of other terrified customers and employees. Eventually, the robbers fled with a haul of cash and valuables.
You know you’ve had “an eventful life,” as Maloney describes it, when an experience like that hardly seems worth mentioning now. If someone were ever to make a movie based on Maloney’s life story, that scene might not even make the final cut.
There’s just so much other ground to cover: growing up with a suicidal mother, who’d habitually kiss her daughters goodbye in the morning, telling them she’d be dead when they came home from school; losing her sister to a fatal drug addiction, then waging an Erin Brockovich-like crusade to put the dentist who illegally provided her with painkiller prescriptions behind bars, and raising her sister’s orphaned daughter.
Then there’s her husband Joe’s tragic, eight-year battle with mental illness, which Maloney recently chronicled in “Life with Joe,” a story that quickly went viral after it was published in the Asbury Park Press May 11.
Since the story appeared, Maloney, an administrative assistant in the newspaper’s design studio, has been inundated with emails, notes and phone calls from as far away as Ireland, where she has relatives.
One of the emails came from a woman in Ireland who lost her son to suicide. “There are so many points in the article that I can relate to,” she wrote. “I think it is such a brave thing to share your experience, where I can’t approach it. I wish I could.”
Another woman called to share her own experiences with her brother, now a patient at Trenton Psychiatric Hospital. The two spoke for nearly an hour.
“I felt like I knew her. Even though this is my brother, not my husband, I felt her pain,” the woman said later.
“Life with Joe” has since been picked up by other Gannett Co. Inc. newspapers around the country, as well as The Journal, an Irish news site similar to the Huffington Post. On the Press’ website, the story has generated more page views online than many staff writers garner after months of work — quite an achievement, considering that Maloney isn’t a member of the Press’ reporting staff.
Pete Earley, a former Washington Post reporter and best-selling author whose book, “Crazy: A Father’s Search Through America’s Mental Health Madness” (Penguin Group, 2007), was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, said his own mental health-focused blog and Facebook page both exploded after he posted a version of Maloney’s story.
Maloney has “done something incredible,” Earley said, by humanizing an issue that rarely receives media attention unless there is a shooting or some other act of violence by a mentally ill person in the news.
The story — and the family snapshots that accompanied it — resonate with readers “because that’s not the normal face you see with mental illness,” he said.
“You’re like, ‘Wow, these could be my neighbors.’<TH>”
Maloney said she approached editors with the story idea to coincide with Mental Health Awareness Month in May. Since her husband’s death from cancer in 2011, she feels a passion to educate the public — and lawmakers, in particular — about how a disjointed mental health care system often leaves families like hers with a mentally ill loved one to fend for themselves.
“I knew it wasn’t right, what happened to Joe,” said Maloney, 52, of Howell.
In her case, her once gregarious, doting husband became increasingly erratic and verbally abusive following a devastating job loss. For years, Joe refused treatment for bipolar II disorder and the neck cancer that developed later and ultimately killed him. He was 52.
“Life with Joe” came on the heels of Maloney’s first foray onto the Press’ editorial pages in March, “My Journey of Discovery,” about her quest to rediscover her family’s roots in rural Ireland. That story, too, generated heavy web traffic and a flood of emails. It has since been re-published in The Journal and the Irish Echo, the oldest Irish-American newspaper in the U.S.
“I have just finished reading about your recent experiences in Ireland,” read one email, from an admirer in Cork, Ireland, “and I am smiling within.”
The remarkable response Maloney has received begs the question: What’s next for her?