Hurry Down Sunshine

On Writing

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 this bind.

A couple of 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.”

With only a few 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.

Before putting 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.

On Sunday night, 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.

I was immensely 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.”

When we spoke 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.”

I’d heard this 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 cannabis-induced disorder.

I emailed 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.” I remembered the 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 Down Sunshine.