Hurry Down Sunshine by Michael Greenberg

Hurry Down Sunshine is a remarkable book. It is the type of book I want to tell everyone about: “You should read this book. Now!”

During the summer of 1996, on July 5th to be exact, Greenberg’s fifteen-year-old daughter, Sally, suffers a profound crack in her being which spirals into manic psychosis. This father makes a very difficult decision to commit his daughter to a psychiatric hospital for very needed treatment but struggles with why and how this happened.Hurry Down Sunshine offers a very intimate glimpse of a common psychiatric syndrome delivered from an uncommon perspective. In doing so, Greenberg illuminates an arena of collateral damage of mental illness that often eludes societal concern. The book is a two month segment of the life of a writer immersed in problems endemic to many – career, housing, finances, a first then a second marriage, children and several generations of troubled family, all suddenly up-ended by a mental illness as familiar and incomprehensible as if it were his own.

“Sally, the quirky, brilliant 15-year-old daughter from his first marriage (to Robin), was transformed overnight into an angry stranger exploding with kaleidoscopic energy, her speech shattered like dropped glass. The story, in addition to being a heart-wrenching account of the brilliant burst and fall-out fading of a full-blown mania, records the desperate efforts of the author to hold the center of his life, manage the crisis, and quench his intense thirst to understand what was happening. The author’s obsession with etiology ranges the expanse from bad parenting to drug abuse, genetics, nutritional deficiency, a rare force of nature like a blizzard or flood, offenses to God, misaligned spirituality, a bad throw of the dice, and back to bad parenting. The question “Why?” can never really be fully answered in Greenberg’s case, nor, I suspect in the case of most people suffering and living with the same disease.

Greenberg broods under the shadow of the psychiatric affliction of his dysfunctional, nearly homeless brother, Steve, as well as his readings on mental illness in writers and their families: Robert Lowell’s wild mood swings; Ernest Hemingway’s granddaughter, who killed herself while reading one of his books – one day before the anniversary of Hemingway’s own suicide; and James Joyce, who mirrored the author’s preoccupation with a psychotic daughter. They shared the initial belief that oddness reflected the growing pains of a very gifted child, but as Joyce’s Lucia became chronically paranoid, he mercilessly blamed himself. He squandered years and a fortune seeking remedies, which included consultation with Carl Jung and an expensive fur coat believed to possess healing powers. Lucia’s only evidence of being in touch with reality occurred at his funeral, where she pronounced her father an idiot.

Sally had been an infant without serenity. She rejected Robin’s breast at two months and was a thrasher, gripper, and yanker of fingers, hair and ears, relentlessly propelling herself away from her parents. Later, she craved reassurance but always rejected it. In school she was found to have a serious learning disorder, yet her deftness with puns and wit, coupled with sheer determination, revealed a bewildering intelligence. Sally was only eleven when her parents divorced, and several years of shuffling between them, rebellious acting out, and school problems ensued. As Sally ages, a stint of special education seemed to be succeeding and things at home, living with her father and step-mother, Pat, seemed more settled. The mania erupted like a sudden storm. Sally suffered a truly harsh psychosis based on the belief that everyone is born a genius and it is her role to reveal this truth. Beyond the uncontrolled explosions of speech and action common to her illness, Sally had none of the ebullient expansiveness usually seen. Her pressured speech was wry and negative, tinged with paranoia, replete with delusions and, it is revealed later, auditory hallucinations.

While in hospital, Sally initially disappears behind locked doors and into isolation rooms without explanation or comment from a seemingly harsh hospital staff who regard the author for weeks on end as a bothersome intruder entitled neither to consolation nor information. Doctors mostly explained too little too quickly, thus mystification reigned for much too long. Eventually bonds of understanding are formed and Sally very slowly begins to emerge from the ruins of her mania.

The story also details how severe illness stresses the family. Sally’s mother, Robin, crowded into the scene, adding her anti-medical bias to the mix of confusion and worry. Tension with his second wife, Pat, finally led to a nasty marital fight, which rebounded with a reconciliation so sincere it engendered a pregnancy. The author’s mother and brothers, each on their own, felt obliged to contribute idiosyncratic cross-currents of counsel, adding more drag to the author’s effort to keep his nose above water.

The tide didn’t turn until well into Sally’s second month of illness, and recovery proceeded like sludge. But one evening the author perceived a slight shift in the air and quite unexpectedly Sally leaned against him and said, “You and Pat saved my life. It must have been hard for you.” The miracle of normalcy and ordinary existence had descended upon them. Sally was back, and she was able to return to school that fall not fully asymptomatic, but functional. In a postscript, we learn that she graduated from high school with honors, but shortly thereafter became ill again. Two years later, she entered a marriage that lasted only three years and at last report available to the reader, she was living and working near her mother in the country. We depart this eloquently told tale, yet unfinished, in hope and worry with her father.”

Berkeley, Calif.
As featured in The American Journal of Psychiatry, September 2009

The Cat’s Table – Michael Ondaatje

The Cat's TableThe Cat’s Table by Michael Ondaatje
My rating: 2 of 5 stars


A lot of people are going to hate me for this rating! I love quiet, contemplative novels. In fact, some of my favourite works of contemporary fiction are of this very nature – The Sea, Homer & Langley & Out Stealing Horses, as great examples. The Cat’s Table just doesn’t hold a candle to these books. I really wasn’t engaged with the story or the characters. There was a hopeful moment of interesting reading at the very end of the story but it was, I suppose, too little, too late.

I am sorry, Mr. Ondaatje.

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