It was with a feeling of trepidation that I first sat down to write Hurry Down Sunshine. I don’t think of myself as a memoirist in the usual sense of the word, and Hurry Down Sunshine is not about my childhood or my “awakening” or the “turning points” in my life. It’s about a dramatic event that took place in the time-span of a single summer, when my daughter Sally, at the age of fifteen, had a manic breakdown.
After writing about sixty pages, I decided not to go on. The subject felt too private and revealing. It seemed gauche, and possibly unethical, to expose myself and the people closest to me in such a public manner.
I put the pages away, but the events of that summer had a haunting impact on us, and after about a year I removed the unfinished manuscript from its drawer and started writing again. One of the reasons I forged ahead was that I felt this book was missing from the literature of madness. And a brilliant literature it is: one that begins with Richard Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy back in the early seventeenth century; trots forward to William James’ Principles of Psychology, which is much more of a personal confession of James’ own mood disorder than the title suggests; moves on to Robert Lowell’s extraordinary poems from the psych ward during his manic attacks; Sylvia Plath’s autobiographical novel The Bell Jar; William Styrons’s Darkness Visible; Kay Redfield Jamison’s An Unquiet Mind . . .
What these writers have in common is that every one of them was describing his or her own experience of being psychotic. Hurry Down Sunshine was the chance to fill a missing link, to write about madness as a participant, but from the other shore. To the family and to the sufferer, psychosis brings a tremendous feeling of loneliness in its wake, and sometimes a feeling of shame. My hope was to write a book that would offer some companionship to people who have been through a similar experience — with a child, a parent, a spouse, a close friend, a sibling.
With only a few weeks to go before publication, I sent a copy of Hurry Down Sunshine to Sally, twenty-seven now and living in 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 difficult 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 twelve 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 Vermont on Monday, so we can talk about it, if you feel you need to,” I said.
On Sunday night Sally called me. She had finished the book. There was no need for me to make a special trip to see her, she said. “I loved it. I felt I was reading about someone else, a fifteen-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?”
Only then did I feel at peace with the book, able to see it go out to the world without qualms.
©2008 Michael Greenberg
A native New Yorker, Michael Greenberg is a columnist for the Times Literary Supplement (London), where his wide-ranging essays have been appearing since 2003. His fiction, criticism, and travel pieces have been published widely. He lives in New York with his wife and nine-year-old son.