If your average health insurance policy is to be believed, mental illness is hardly worth noting: 20 visits or less; a few pills. Either that or it is too monumentally thoroughgoing to be dealt with in any actuarial manner and is thus best left unmentioned. Let those who have it face it as they may.
Writers face it, of course, by writing about it. Since Robert Burton’s 1621 Anatomy of Melancholy, the library of mental affliction has grown large, especially of late: there is William Styron’s Darkness Visible; Andrew Solomon’s The Noonday Demon; An Unquiet Mind by Kay Redfield Jamison; Blue Genes by Christopher Lukas. Right on the latter’s heels now comes Hurry Down Sunshine, the Times Literary Supplement columnist Michael Greenberg’s visceral recounting of the summer of 1996, when his teenage daughter, Sally, was suddenly overtaken by manic-depression.
John Dryden observed (in Absalom and Achitophel), “Great wits are sure to madness near allied / And thin partitions do their bounds divide”; it is precisely on this uncertain edge between genius and insanity that Greenberg’s story skates. For bipolar (as the disease is now known) is, strangely, an affliction centered on sometimes high-flown ideas and the words that express them, symptomatically in pressured speech replete with puns. Indeed, the first time Greenberg sees Sally, now medicated, in the psych ward after her admittance, she remarks, “They stole my words.”
Great artists, and particularly writers — Byron, Keats, Coleridge, Virginia Woolf, Robert Lowell — are disproportionately affected, and it follows suit that Sally, too, has verbal gifts. (Dr. Jamison, herself a sufferer, devoted another book to the study of this peculiar confluence.) So it is that bipolar often goes unrecognized as a severe yet treatable malady, and so it was that Greenberg at first wished to see it as anything — youthful intellectual exuberance, a mishap of recreational drugs — but an illness that would take Sally, and him as her father, on a bruising ride over rocky terrain.
Although it occurs in the mind, the onset of the disease is concrete in its ramifications. And in Greenberg’s telling, we can practically feel the heat of July as it oppresses New York City and the West Village tenement where he lives the type of bohemian artist’s life that used to be common but is now rare in those high-rent precincts; we can see the street where Sally flips out, kicking a trashcan in her “irate euphoria” (the author’s perfect description of the psychotic mania that is often the first noticed phase of this cyclic debility).
The chronological narrative, with its imperative to follow along quickly so we may see what’s next, is anchored in the observation of physical detail — which paradoxically, and pleasantly, raises it to the realm of the philosophical. The nature of the disease leads Greenberg to explore the nature of personality itself: where does it end and pathology begin? His parental love for Sally, coupled with this careful observation, allows her to shine in all her complexity — and we can almost taste the stew of frustration, despair, and cogitation that fuels her mania. The central tragedy, as he sees Sally engendering it, is that finally, “There is no I, no reliable self to retreat to or upon which to stand.”
Any investigation of bipolar is at base a metaphysics, a discussion of who we are. This becomes evident to Greenberg early on: by page 27, he is arm-wrestling with the obverse of his daughter’s grandiose insistences (“You don’t know anything about me. Do you, Father?”), her apparent joy, her sense of control over concepts and life itself:
She is beleaguered by certitude because she is certain of nothing. She thinks she’s eloquent, when she can’t put together a coherent sentence. She demands control because, in some interstice of her psyche, she is hurtling out of control.
He is a writer; his wife, Pat, a dancer; Sally’s mother, Robin, an artist — this child of theirs was cooked in the creative oven, and (as we are all secretly proud to note of our offspring) she came out bearing their artistic impress. So Greenberg is especially worried that the treatment he knows will save his child will also diminish her, will “blunt” the sensibility that makes her who she is. At the diagnosis, then, the author fears he is present at what amounts to his daughter’s death.
Being the story of something unexpected (a.k.a. life itself), this is also the story of other sunderings, not just of Sally with so-called normalcy. There is Greenberg’s parting of the ways with Robin, their young love portrayed in its innocent first flush but then left, in the recounting, to peter out inchoately. There is the violent crescendo of an almost-break with his current wife; this is laid at the doorstep of his own inability to deal with anger and the stress of Sally’s breakdown. And there is some ancient history (as always) with his mother, along with his mentally unstable brother, Steve. All of these relationships remain strangely brittle on the page, as if he knows a memoir has to include them because they are included, but all the truly warm blood flows between him and Sally, with little left to fully animate any other bond. Robin moves through the account as a new age–ist caricature; Steve is an angry and furtive character held at arm’s length by the author until such time as he needs him to shade in his picture of chronic craziness as a category of burden. “The afterlife of what has been thrown away,” Steve declaims, on the subject of the junk he has taken to selling on the street. But this bit of poetry sounds suspiciously more fresh from the author’s pen than recalled from someone’s decade-old speech.
Still, at the story’s conclusion, if in true life there is ever such (and Greenberg ends by saying no, there is not), the paragraphs begin to fairly hurtle along. It is here that Greenberg hits stride, with ideas, comprehensions, and forgivenesses galloping together in beautiful gait. He allows us to see that it won’t go on forever like this, but for a moment, all can be well. Until it isn’t, again.