Hurry down Sunshine: A Father's Memoir of Love and Madness

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Overview

Hurry Down Sunshine tells the story of the extraordinary summer when, at the age of fifteen, Michael Greenberg's daughter was struck mad. It begins with Sally's sudden visionary crack-up on the streets of Greenwich Village, and continues, among other places, in the out-of-time world of a Manhattan psychiatric ward during the city's most sweltering months. "I feel like I'm traveling and traveling with nowhere to go back to," Sally says in a burst of lucidity while hurtling away toward some place her father could not dream of or imagine. Hurry Down Sunshine is the chronicle of that journey, and its effect on Sally and those closest to her - her mother and stepmother, her brother and grandmother, and, not least of all, the author himself.
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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
Suzanne Niemoth, Flavorpill

“Michael Greenberg's excellently written memoir echoes the genre's most poignant predecessors. … Greenberg's wry, lighting-bolt prose and unsentimental portrayal of his family's ordeal make for a brilliant, engrossing sketch of mental illness and its terrifying, destructive fallout.”

Oliver Sacks, New York Review of Books

“In its detail, depth, richness, and sheer intelligence, Hurry Down Sunshine will be recognized as a classic of its kind ….Lucid, realistic, compassionate, illuminating, Hurry Down Sunshine may provide a sort of guide for those who have to negotiate the dark regions of the soul—a guide, too, for their families and friends, for all those who want to understand what their loved ones are going through.”

Time, Lev Grossman

[an]… extraordinary memoir…”

Library Journal

“The prose is so fluid that it transports us into the author's head, making his shock, fear, and love our own.”

St. Louis Post-Dispatch

“[Hurry Down Sunshine is]… almost impossible to put down.”


Shelf Awareness


“…deeply affecting and poetically rendered…”

Doody's Review Service
Reviewer: William Miles, MD (Rush University Medical Center)
Description: This memoir details the psychotic break and eventual recovery of the author's 15-year-old daughter.
Purpose: The implication is that the author felt the need to express his experiences in writing, and to educate readers about dealing with a child suffering from a mental illness. These are certainly worthy objectives, and the author meets them.
Audience: Anyone who has experienced mental illness either personally or in a loved one, or who wishes to be educated about the impact of mental illness, would find this book an interesting read. The author is a credible authority on the subject, as is anyone who has personally dealt with mental illness in a child or loved one.
Features: This memoir outlines the summer of 1996, when the author's daughter has a psychotic break and is eventually diagnosed as suffering from bipolar disorder. The book is divided into three parts, which roughly coincide with diagnosis, stabilization, and acceptance/maintenance. The author, a columnist for a London publication, is a marvelous writer, and his descriptions of his daughter's psychotic behavior and eventual recovery (and the effects on both him and his family) are riveting.
Assessment: This is a harrowing, brutally honest, and extremely well written account of the mental breakdown of a loved one. The author's descriptions of his daughter's behavior offer a much more meaningful lesson for readers about what constitutes mania than could ever be gleaned by reading a textbook. Anyone who has been through a similar experience, or simply wants to read a first-person account of mental illness and its effects, will find this book a good read.
Nell Casey
Greenberg renders the details of his daughter's breakdown with lyrical precision. He ably describes the heightened sense of being that is often a component of madness—and the way it beckons to outsiders.
—The Washington Post
Rachel Donadio
What sets Hurry Down Sunshine apart from the great horde of mediocre memoirs, with their sitcom emotions and too neatly resolved fights and reconciliations, is Greenberg's frank pessimism, dark humor and fundamental incapacity to make sense of his daughter's ordeal, let alone to derive an uplifting moral from it…beyond family drama, Hurry Down Sunshine is a very New York book, filled with the kind of characters increasingly rare in a city where real kooks can no longer afford to live.
—The New York Times
Publishers Weekly
Columnist and author Greenberg's heartbreaking and inspiring memoir details his daughter's downfall into insanity one hot summer in New York City. Greenberg writes with a raw passion and intensity, capturing the essence of every detail and event as if they were occurring in real time as he types. His reading is a heartfelt and honest attempt to relate the experiences with as much restrained emotion as possible, offering it as part headline news story, part editorial. With perfect pitch, tone and pacing, Greenberg is a talented narrator, who will surely capture and hold listeners' attention. An Other Press hardcover (Reviews, June 23).
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Library Journal

Times Literary Supplement (UK) columnist Greenberg's elegiac, beautifully crafted memoir chronicles the summer his teenaged daughter, Sally, lost her mind to madness. In it, Greenberg observes the experience and its effect on everyone involved with meticulous care. At times acutely painful, at times painfully funny, his story alternates between the progression of Sally's bewildering, frightening decline and Greenberg's own at times comically absurd experience as he simultaneously deals with a dependent brother suffering from his own demons; a difficult, obtuse wife; and a New Age ex-wife who, after each visit, offers cosmic explanations for her daughter's condition before retreating to her home in the country. Characters from the psychiatric ward where Sally spends nearly a month are often indistinguishable in their strangeness from the doctors themselves, giving the atmosphere of the hospital a hauntingly surrealistic air. The whole effect is one of a wrathful storm passing through Greenberg's life, turning every relationship upside down as it shattered any semblance of inner peace in both father and daughter and destroyed their ability to communicate at the time. Sure to become a new classic in the literature of mental illness; highly recommended for all public libraries.
—Elizabeth Brinkley

Kirkus Reviews
Times Literary Supplement columnist Greenberg chronicles his 15-year-old daughter Sally's manic breakdown in vivid yet surprisingly detached prose. In July 1996, the author awoke to find a furiously annotated copy of Shakespeare's Sonnets and loose pages of Sally's poetry strewn about their Greenwich Village apartment. That night, the police escorted his daughter home for "acting crazy" in the streets. Greenberg and second wife Pat pieced the story together from Sally's breathless, incoherent account. She had been struck by a vision: We are all born geniuses, but society robs us of the gift. When the police pulled up, she was on a mission to communicate this to anyone who would listen-even people in the speeding cars she was convinced she could thwart with her hand. Michael and Pat took the "feral, glitter-eyed" Sally to the nearest emergency room, where a psychiatrist gave a preliminary diagnosis of bipolar 1 and admitted her to the psych ward. In his text, her father deals with the shock of Sally's condition by portraying it in the context of literary madness. Greenberg quotes Lowell's descriptions of his own manic episodes, cites Spinoza and alludes to Plato, Byron, Hemingway and Woolf. This might seem aggrandizing, but the author is trying to demonstrate that Sally's insights are sometimes justified, while at the same time avoiding James Joyce's fatal error of enabling his daughter's madness by participating in her visions. Sally spent 24 days in the ward, flanked by her quirky family and a tableau of other colorful characters, before she returned home, highly medicated and bravely determined to believe her therapist's assertion that psychosis is not an identity. Greenberg'stalent for description occasionally runs away from him in a narrative that could be slightly tighter, but his erudite portrait of bipolar disease as experienced from both inside and out is dazzling. Sally's own precocious descriptions of her mania serve as no small aid. Bears enlightening and articulate witness to the sheer force of an oft-misunderstood disease. Agent: Irene Skolnick/Irene Skolnick Literary Agency
The Barnes & Noble Review
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. --Melissa Holbrook Pierson

Melissa Holbrook Pierson is the author of three works of nonfiction: The Perfect Vehicle, Dark Horses and Black Beauties, and The Place You Love Is Gone, all from Norton. She is writing a book on B. F. Skinner and the ethics of dog training.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781590511916
  • Publisher: Other Press, LLC
  • Publication date: 9/9/2008
  • Pages: 240
  • Product dimensions: 8.74 (w) x 10.88 (h) x 0.93 (d)

Read an Excerpt

Sally emerges from her room in a thin hospital gown, snap buttons, no laces or ties. She suddenly looks ageless. The only other time I’ve seen her in a hospital was the night she was born. By that point in our marriage her mother and I were like two people drinking alone in a bar. Not hostile, just miles apart. Yet when Sally appeared, a huge optimism came over us, a physical optimism, primitive and momentarily blind. She was her own truth, complete to herself, so beautifully formed that the jaded maternity nurses marveled at what perfection had just slid into the world. Though she has never set foot in a psychiatric hospital, there is the tacit sense from Sally that she is understood here, she is where she belongs. She acts as if a great burden has been lifted from her. At the same time she is more elevated than ever: feral, glitter-eyed. In 1855 a friend of Robert Schumann observed him at the piano in an asylum near Bonn: “like a machine whose springs are broken, but which still tries to work, jerking convulsively.” Sally appears to be heading toward this maimed point of perpetual motion. Her sole concern is to get her pen back, which has been confiscated with most of her other belongings–belt, matches, shoelaces, keys, anything with glass, and her comb with half its teeth snapped off by her potent hair. She initiates an agitated negotiation with the nurses, which immediately threatens to boil over into a serious scene. The nurses confer like referees after a disputed call. Then they grant her a felt-tip marker and march her back to her room.

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Reading Group Guide

1. Why does the author doubt Sally’s psychosis? How does each family member deal with the crisis differently, and what do their reactions tell you about them?

2. The author refers to the illness of James Joyce’s daughter and how Joyce copes with Lucia’s madness. Discuss the differences and similarities between Greenberg’s and Joyce’s reactions to their daughters’ illnesses.

3. Consider the author’s grief over Sally’s illness in relation to his mother’s guilt over her troubled son, Steven. In what ways are parental guilt intensified in times of crisis?

4. Before her psychotic episode, Sally refuses to believe Pat’s devotion to her is sincere. How does their relationship change as Sally battles to overcome the psychosis? How does Pat’s revelation about her close friend after the fight with Michael shed light on her devotion to Sally as a mother?

5. How does the Hasidic family respond to Noah’s psychosis? How was it different from Sally’s family? Were there any similarities? Why do you think Noah and Sally were drawn to each other?

6. Throughout the story, the author interjects scenes that reflect current events happening in the world. How does Greenberg use these events to give the reader a better understanding of what he is going through?

7. Greenberg’s mother arrives at the hospital dressed in a new outfit each day. Similarly, when Greenberg returns to his studio to write for the first time since Sally has come home, he removes all references to chaos and crisis from his book. Greenberg writes, “the harder the blow, the more polish is required”. Do you think a mutual need to restore order is an effort to fix Sally or simply a defense mechanism?

8. When Greenberg takes a dose of Sally’s medication to try and see the world as she does, the reader also gets a glimpse of that world. What is your reaction? Does it change Greenberg’s perception of her illness? How does Greenberg’s medicated state influence his meeting with Jean-Paul?

9. How is the narrator’s relationship with his brother, Steven, both a responsibility he enjoys as well as a source of burden for him? Cite examples.

10. Greenberg describes infant Sally, as distinctly fiery: “a thrasher, a gripper, a grasper, a yanker of fingers and ears”. In what ways does Sally’s madness inform the way the author reflects on her infancy and childhood?

11. Compare Sally’s use of the name “Father” to Greenberg’s own description of himself as her “touchstone of sanity”. How does this change after his fight with Pat?

12. In the midst of a crisis, families either pull together or are torn apart. How did Sally’s illness change the dynamics between family members?

13. How is psychosis understood and misunderstood in society, and how has this changed over time? If Steven were raised in Sally’s generation, do you think he would have turned out differently?

14. Do you feel that Greenberg and Pat and Robin did a good job in caring for Sally during her time of crisis? Would you have responded differently?

15. Would you describe the relationship between Sally’s biological mother Robin and her stepmother Pat as tense? Harmonious? What do you think of the position of a stepmother in such a situation?

16. Do you think Dr. Lensing was an effective therapist to Sally?

17. James Joyce called psychosis “the most elusive disease known to man and unknown to medicine.” Do you think metal illness is a medical disease or an extreme aspect of who we are as human beings?

18. Throughout Hurry Down Sunshine we see glimpses of Sally’s unusual verbal brilliance. Do you think these flashes of brilliance are symptoms of Sally’s psychosis or an expression of who she really is? Do you think it is possible to separate Sally’s behavior while psychotic from her personality and way of being when she is not psychotic or do they seem to be aspects of a single person?

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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 24 Customer Reviews
  • Posted May 25, 2010

    I Also Recommend:

    An uneasy truce

    This is a beautifully written book about the sudden onset of bi-polar disorder in the author's 15 year old daughter. The father unsparingly chronicles the changes that took place in his daughter and the havoc that was created in their small household. With a writer's eye and sensitivity, he struggles to understand the condition in the literary sense (relating James Joyce's struggle to understand his schizophrenic daughter Lucia). He sees his daughter as highly gifted and caring, marvels at her creative energy, and wonders, like I do about my own child, if this is not just a struggle to grow as a human being. We, of course, feel that professional help is needed, but we are also not convinced by the current drug treatment approach.

    I am disappointed that the author does not make a clearer case for why he is disillusioned with the medication. He is troubled by it, yet somehow has struck an uneasy, but unexplained truce.

    Michael Greenberg's daughter was acutely ill for a very short time (seven weeks) and that is the time period that the book covers. Had she been ill longer he might have had to look beyond the medication and limited psychotherapy for help. On the other hand, he is a father, not a mother and as a father he can detach himself in ways that the mother often cannot. There are of course, deep father/child bonds, but the mother/child affinity is unique.

    This book was written ten years after his daughter's first episode. She has continued to struggle intermittently with bi-polar while on various medications, medications he has grown to hate. In my son's case, because his illness continued much longer than seven weeks, and because he was not getting better on the medications, I had to do something for him myself. I feel that this extra time allowed me to find the cause or causes of his symptoms. I was able to spend more time with psychiatrists and institutional psychiatric care, seeing what the drugs and the attitudes really did to my son (and to me!). I had to finally part ways with the institutional psychiatrists because they were not helping my son to get better. There is so much creativity and a poetry to the condition that I sometimes wonder if the reason for these conditions is to bring out creativity in others, or at the very least to allow us to pause and contemplate life's purpose.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted April 6, 2009

    Not That Good

    I was completely disappointed in this one. It would have made a good magazine article but as a book it was very poor.

    I felt the first 100 pages were added just to make the story long enough to be a book. The rest of the book was excellent.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 27, 2010

    informative read

    I have a sister who suffers with mental illness and I found this story to be a very true to life detailed account of what an illness like this can be like for the person suffering with the illness as well as the torment that the family suffers and how it can tear them apart in unimaginable ways. It is a difficult read due to the nature of the content. If you have a family member with mental illness I highly reccommend this one.

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    Posted November 9, 2008

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