She realized that those sentiments were at the core of the stigma surrounding mental illness, which according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness affects one in five people in the U.S. "It insinuates that there are people that aren't nice, that aren't good, that deserve such a thing," she said.
Winters Schwartz stresses that empathy, not sympathy, is the key to breaking through the stigma, which "slows the vital process of moving out of despair and into acceptance." This is why her novel is told from the point of view of all the major characters.
So what about the title? Winters Schwartz concluded her talk by reaching into a box of Cocoa Puffs and spelling out the metaphor once and for all.
"Think of these little chocolaty nuggets as little balls of empathy, and compassion, and comfort," she said. "The answer to the question of 'Where Are the Cocoa Puffs?' lies within us, and all of you, with organizations such as NAMI, with getting the word out there, with opening up the closet, with talking and advocating and breaking down the 100 years of false evidence, and not being afraid to do so."
"Where Are the Cocoa Puffs?" has received positive reviews from the professional community, including Alan Gettis, Ph.D., author of the award-winning "The Happiness Solution: Finding Joy & Meaning in an Upside Down World."
"Welcome to the world of mental illness," Gettis wrote. "This emotionally raw novel pulls you into the belly of the beast - in this case, into the chaos of the Benson family, where survival and sanity hang by a thread. There is no escape; it feels like you are part of the family. Ultimately, this is a love story. It's about the love that binds a family together in the midst of dealing with everything that threatens to pull them apart. Very highly recommended!"
Schwartz is an active board member of the Syracuse affiliate of NAMI, and encourages others looking for support to become involved. For more information on NAMI, go to namisyracuse.org.
Support can also be found in the pages of "Where Are the Cocoa Puffs?," which is on sale now at Creekside Books, Amazon, Borders and Barnes & Noble. Winters Schwartz will be at Downtown Books & Coffee in Auburn from 1 to 3 p.m. Saturday Dec. 18 to sign copies of her book.
Visit the author online at karenwintersschwartz.com.