Angelhead: My Brother's Descent into Madness / Edition 1

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A taut, powerful memoir of madness, Angelhead documents the violent, drug-addled descent of the author's brother, Michael, into schizophrenia. Beginning with Michael's first psychotic break—seeing God in his suburban bedroom window while high on LSD—Greg Bottoms recounts, in gripping, dramatic prose, the bizarre disappearances, suicide attempts, and the shocking crime that land Michael in the psychiatric wing of a maximum security prison. A work of nonfiction with the form and imagery of a novel, Angelhead enables the reader to witness not only the fragmenting of a mind, but of a family as well.

"A tour-de-force memoir. . . . Bottoms writes like a poet, he writes like he is on fire."—Esquire, Book of the Year, 2000

"Angelhead is a brilliant, albeit inconceivably sad book. The fact that Bottoms survived the ordeal is incredible. But the fact that he could write about it with such pathos and insight is nothing less than extraordinary."—Atlanta Journal-Constitution

"Greg Bottoms has provided a biographical novel about his brother that may be as close as most of us will ever get to knowing what it is to be truly mad. Angelhead is a story nearly as terrifying as the disease it describes."—Psychology Today

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
One of the most harrowing portraits of madness in recent memory, Bottoms's memoir documents the unraveling of his older brother in skillful, off-center prose. The chaos--of mental deterioration, family denial, God obsession and terror--begins in the 1980s, in the Bottomses' suburban home in Tidewater, Va. Fourteen-year-old Michael, high on LSD, believes he sees the face of God and briefly descends into a psychotic fit. From there, Bottoms follows his brother's fall from sanity in a series of misadventures that carve away Michael's humanity--homelessness; suicide attempts with Drano and hanging; sudden disappearances, sometimes to other states. The boy's parents watch his mental vanishing act with stoicism, more worried about the opinions of their prosperous neighbors than the health of their son. When Michael rapidly falls apart after a brutal trauma, the family's rage and frustration corrodes most of their remaining goodwill--he is jeopardizing their hard-won facade of happiness, destroying their hopes for normalcy. Throughout the book, Bottoms, whose work has appeared in the online magazines Salon, Feed and Nerve, candidly discloses his feelings of shame, fear and sympathy for his brother, as well as his disdain for his parents' handling of the crisis. Though the prose is occasionally flat in comparison to the crises it recounts, and bookstore browsers will have to get past the lackluster jacket, this memoir will rivet readers in their 20s and 30s who are interested in schizophrenia. (Nov.) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.
Anne Beattie
I am on record as believing that any day is better when I am not asked to read another memoir. But Greg Bottoms's book caught my attention immediately and drew me in. I read it all in one sitting. I glanced up once or twice to look out of the window and clear my head, and then when I finished I looked at the window again but it was dark outside. Which, considering what I'd just finished reading, seemed appropriate.

I would feel foolish in saying that the book is powerful and well written. . . . That doesn't seem the point somehow. AngelHead is direct, inventive, clearly imagined, and packs a punch. It is a book people will talk about–perhaps productively.

John Casey
Angelhead is a cleanly distilled story of a profound anguish. One every one of its two hundred pages there are sentences like arrows. The whole work has the beauty of hard, painful truth, arrived at through intelligence, art, and compassion. This is one of the most moving books I've read in a long, long time.
Kirkus Reviews
A harrowing yet highly readable description of living with a schizophrenic.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780226067643
  • Publisher: University of Chicago Press
  • Publication date: 4/15/2005
  • Edition description: 1
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 227
  • Sales rank: 314,144
  • Product dimensions: 5.25 (w) x 8.00 (h) x 0.60 (d)

Meet the Author

Greg Bottoms is assistant professor of English at the University of Vermont. He has published stories and essays in Alaska Quarterly Review, Creative Nonfiction, Nerve, and Salon.

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Read an Excerpt

Michael's plan was simple. He was going to burn our father alive before the demons completely overtook his soul. He believed our father would kill our mother by strangling her one night in bed; he had seen this in a vision given to him in a dream by a mysterious force named Utok the Angel, who didn't have a body but was instead pure energy and translucent, a wave of colorless movement speeding about in his room.

The same angel, in a different dream, told Michael that the bug in his head, a tiny metal transistor, had been planted by his father and was to keep Michael from interfering, to always know his whereabouts in the house. His father was the origin of all the voices. His father had made Michael a prisoner. Michael had finally been given full disclosure from the other world, the real world of dreams. All the tricks, all the lies, all the pain he had suffered and nightmares he had endured, were radiating from the center of his father's head. The whole cancer thing was an obvious ploy, more tricks, a way of getting Michael to drop his defenses in what had become a silent war.

Kill that motherfucker, Utok had said. It's the only way.

His father was flooding the world with demons, so no matter where Michael went, the forces of evil could squeeze through window frames and up through vents and along corridors, always shadowing him, always oppressing him. His father controlled the sewer systems and the radio towers and the satellite dishes in space. He controlled the demons and the demons controlled the world and that made our dying father the true nemesis of God, the Antichrist. That had been the message in the window when he was fourteen, only he hadn't knownenough scripture then to read it correctly. The demons would always find Michael as long as his father was alive, acting sick, acting innocent, scooting around in his underwear with that ridiculous chemo tube stuck in his side.

Michael waited in the garage, smoking--he had to smoke in the garage now that his father was dying of lung cancer; further reason to hate him--until 4:30 A.M. He had set an alarm on a small digital clock that sat on a work-bench. Then he put out his cigarette and began to pray. The voices were becoming clear; but soon, if it all worked out, they would vanish forever with his father; vanish into oblivion with all evil. There would be light, a new world. Blessed are they that do his commandments, that they may have right to the tree of life, and may enter in through the gates into the city. For without are dogs, and sorcerers, and whoremongers, and murderers, and idolaters, and whosoever loveth and maketh a lie.

First he went upstairs, to my younger brother's room, which was locked. He lifted the smoke alarm off the small hook on the wall and put it in his coat pocket. On the stairs, coming down, he tried to be quiet, but some of the boards squeaked under his weight. My father heard him, but his stalking was normal. My father wheezed at night, couldn't sleep in certain positions because of the fluid that stayed in his lungs. He ignored the noise.

Michael went to the hall adjacent the living room. The smoke detector there wouldn't pop off the wall like the one upstairs, so he twisted the white cover until it broke off, then ripped the wires out, putting it all in his pocket. He took both detectors and threw one in the kitchen trash can and one in the bathroom trash can.

Now he went back to the garage. The good voices, the ones from God, were telling him what to do. The bad voices, those radiating from my dying father's head, were trying to trick him into stopping now while he still could, before anyone was hurt, before anyone was dead. They were saying bullshit things like his family loved him and that what was wrong was wrong with him. He knew he was right. The message was through an angel, from God himself. He wouldn't be tricked, not this time. He knew what he had to do, knew he had to kill his family to be free and to set them free. To murder was to free the soul from its cage, from pain and hopelessness, a noble, godly deed. In his mind he was doing my family a favor. They would never be lonely or afraid or worried again. They would never fight or yell or cry or sit quietly and gloomily in that somber house. They would know only love and God's grace and forgiveness. They would go to heaven, maybe even my father, too, if God found it in his heart to forgive him. They would lose their bodies and live forever.

Picking up the gas can, he headed back into the house. It was now ten after five. At the bottom of the stairs, in front of my parents' room, he poured a pool of gasoline on the floor. He held the can close to the ground to quiet the splash. He lit a wooden match on his zipper, tossed it into the pool of gasoline, and watched the rising breath of flames. Heat radiated in concentric circles past him. He waited a few seconds to make sure it closed off the doorway in fire, then headed back to the garage.

In the garage he dumped the rest of the gasoline around, splashing it on the floor and up over his shoes, over sporting equipment and gardening tools and coolers and fold-up lawn chairs. Putting his cigarettes in his pocket and making sure he had more matches, he got my mother's old bike, a blue three-speed from Sears with a baby seat. He opened the big garage door, lit another match on his zipper, and tossed it into the gas. The entire garage, because of the open door and the slight breeze, went up in an inferno instantly, lighting up the night a white-yellow.

Michael rode off into the dark morning, with his clock radio and Bible in the baby seat of the bike, his orange cigarette ember a single point of light along the road away from the house.

He felt better already. It had been the right thing to do, the only thing to do. He had left the gas can, with his fingerprints all over it, tipped over in the driveway, the burned matches on the hardwood floor, smoke detectors covered in more fingerprints in trashcans in the house, wires and batteries from the alarms in the pockets of his coat. He went to the end of our road, about a mile away, and sat at the edge of the black river, where wooden fishing boats were tied to pilings, floating on their own dark reflections He prayed, pulling hard on his third, then his fourth cigarette He waited for the blue souls of my family to go flying past, toward the safe, bright stars.

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Table of Contents

God: A Memory

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4.5
( 2 )
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Sort by: Showing all of 2 Customer Reviews
  • Posted September 7, 2012

    more from this reviewer

    An interesting read

    A glimpse into what life is like for those who's mind's betray them and a brother's struggle to understand the impact on his family and himself. Well written.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 7, 2013

    I would have given this 5 stars except for the too abstract form

    I would have given this 5 stars except for the too abstract form in which Bottoms guides the readers through the book. I first attempted to read it, got onto page 3 and said, this guy is too much. I couldn't focus on his narrative. In shear boredom, I picked it back up, and then couldn't put it down. The picture it paints is painful, but since many families live with this illness every day, I quickly felt empathic. This is a painful journey to take as a reader, especially if one feels any sense of love for the common man.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
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