Hurry Down Sunshine – Memoir By Michael GreenbergEmail This Post
The writing of a memoir is a tricky
proposition, and not only because the form has been dragged through
the mud by its own practitioners in recent years. Philip Roth has a
passage in his novel The
Counterlife about "the strange bind" in
which the family members of a writer find themselves: "Their own
material is articulated for them by someone else who, in his
voracious, voyeuristic using-up of their lives, gets there first but
doesn't always get it right." Having written a memoir about my
daughter Sally's manic breakdown in 1996, I've put my own family in
months before the book was to be published, I offered the manuscript
to every principal character except Sally, seeking their consent, if
not their outright blessing. My emotionally troubled brother Steve
waved it away without so much as a glance at the title. He said,
"Mikey, if you tell the truth about me, I don't want to read
it." Most of the others seemed to accept what I had written
about them, though not without hints of resentment. Sally's mother
Robin, from whom I've been divorced for more than 20 years, praised
the book in a strained, dutiful voice that obviously concealed her
objections. "What's the point of getting into it," she said
when I assured her that I could still make changes. Pleased to be off
the hook, I didn't press the matter further. It was naive of me to
expect Robin to embrace my version of her, with its cold printed aura
of the final word. My present wife also had complaints, though she
couldn't point to any specific insult. My offense was simply to have
told their story. I imagined them in the position of Nathan
Zuckerman's brother Henry in The Counterlife. Reading his
brother's books, thinks Henry, is like "having a very long
argument with someone who wouldn't go away….Nathan had got the
monopoly on words, and the power and prestige that went with it."
weeks to go before publication, I sent a copy to Sally at Spring Lake
Ranch, the therapeutic work community where she is currently living
in the Green Mountains of Vermont. With growing anxiety, I had been
putting this off. Sally had asked me to use her real name in the
memoir, but that was without her knowing its contents. To harm her
was the furthest thing from my mind, but, in a way, the very act of
writing the book was a betrayal: I was exposing her psychosis,
chronicling in detail what could have been painlessly left unsaid.
"I've forgotten almost everything that happened that summer,"
she told me. "Some merciful manic amnesia, I guess." My
descriptions of her — bristling uncontrollably, with her lips
pressed fiercely together and her voice piercing me like a dart —
were bound to throw her back to that awful time. At worst, it could
trigger a fresh manic attack.
the book in the mail, I called Sally to let her know it was on the
way. "You sound scared," she said, immediately picking up
my tone of voice. This usually meant that she was frightened as well.
I delivered the speech I had prepared: the memoir was a
reconstruction of an event that took place 12 years ago; it wasn't a
portrait of Sally as she was now. "Some of it may disturb you,"
I said. My warning seemed to make her more eager to read it. She
would get the book in time to finish it over the weekend. "I'll
come up to the Ranch on Monday, so we can talk about it, if you feel
you need to," I said. I also sent a copy to Bridget, her advisor
and "team leader" at the Ranch.
Sally called me. She had finished the book. "I felt I was
reading about someone else, a 15-year-old girl named Sally who had
been to hell and was the only one who didn't know it. How many people
get to look at themselves in such a way?" After a brief
telephone pause, she continued: "The cows escaped this morning.
Everyone panicked. There goes half our meat for the winter! Luckily,
we found them." She insisted that I drop my plans to visit her.
relieved, but worried that she was acting too bright, too certain. I
pictured her in the main house where the phone is, looking out at the
enormous vegetable garden and the sloping hay fields beyond a stand
of white birches. A Finnish immigrant, Wayne Sarcka, bought the land
in 1932 with the idea of creating a utopian retreat for "the
wounded and vulnerable." During World War I, Sarcka had worked
with British soldiers suffering from shell shock in Mesopotamia. The
last time I visited the ranch, a few months ago, mud season was
underway, and my boots sank to the ankles in the melting snow. Sally
was working on the maple syrup crew, running sap through a series of
tubes that looped from one maple tap to the next like a fence line.
"People joke that they can't tell the residents from the staff,"
the crew director told me. "As far as we're concerned, there's
no higher compliment."
the next day, Sally was more critical of the memoir. "You
weren't fair to Mom. You made her out to be some kind of New Age
flake." She added that her team leader, Bridget, didn't like my
use of the term "crack-up" to describe Sally's sudden
transformation on an ordinary July day in 1996 when, in what seemed
like a mere snap of the fingers of fate, our lives were changed. "She
said she found it jarring. Harsh. It doesn't bother me. It's just
that they talk differently here."
objection from others. An editor had complained that "crack-up"
was "too old-fashioned, too F.
Scott Fitzgerald." And a writer who published a
memoir about his own depression said that, when he came across the
term in the first paragraph of my book, he lost all desire to read
on. I tried to explain my attraction to "crack-up," with
its suggestion of a psyche in fragments, of something whole that had
come apart. I preferred it to "breakdown," which in some
cases denoted nothing stronger than being reduced to tears. "Mental
illness," the term accepted as correct by almost everyone, was
out of the question: it covered every disorder in the Diagnostic
and Statistical Manual, including premature ejaculation and
Bridget, who wrote glowingly of Sally's progress at the Ranch. "She
didn't take your book as hard as I was afraid she would. She says she
wants more people here to read it. She feels flattered that you wrote
of her with such feeling. She seems great, better than ever."
trepidation with which I started the book several years ago. I wrote
about 60 pages and decided not to go on: it seemed gauche to reveal
our lives in such a public manner. I put the pages away, but a year
later removed them from their drawer and continued writing. It struck
me that this book was missing from the rich literature of madness —
a literature that begins with Robert Burton's Anatomy
of Melancholy back in the early 17th century, and
trots forward to Sylvia Plath's autobiographical novel The
Bell Jar, William Styron's Darkness
Visible, Susanna Kaysen's Girl,
Interrupted, Kay Redfield Jamison's An
Unquiet Mind… Every one of these writers was
describing his or her own experience of being psychotic. But apart
from clinicians and specialists, very few have written about it from
the other shore. There was a conspicuous gap in the literature, which
I realized needed to be filled. For better or for worse, this is what
I set out to do with Hurry
A native New Yorker, Michael
Greenberg is a columnist for the Times Literary Supplement
(London), where his wide-ranging essays have been appearing since
2003. His fiction, criticism, and travel pieces have been published
widely. He lives in New York with his wife and nine-year-old son.
This article is re-printed here with full permission of the publisher.
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