by Michael Greenberg. New York, Other Press, 2008, 240 pp., $22.00.
Hurry Down Sunshine is an intimate portrait of a common clinical syndrome rendered from an uncommon perspective. In doing so, Greenberg illuminates an arena of collateral damage of mental illness that often eludes the range of our concern. The book is a diary-fashioned slice from 2 months in the life of a gifted writer immersed in problems endemic to many New Yorkers—career, housing, finances, two marriages, children, several generations of troubled family, all suddenly up-ended by an acute manic psychosis as intimate and incomprehensible as if it were his own, which it wasn’t.
Sally, the quirky, brilliant 15-year-old remnant of his first marriage, 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 burst and 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 and why.
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.
He broods under the shadow of the psychiatric affliction of his dysfunctional, nearly homeless brother and 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; 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 him an idiot. None of this helped our author.
Sally had been an infant without serenity. She rejected the breast and was a thrasher, gripper, and yanker of fingers and ears, relentlessly propelled away from her parents. Later, she craved reassurance but always rejected it. In school she manifested a serious learning disorder, yet her deftness with puns and wit revealed a bewildering intelligence. Sally was 11 when her parents separated, and several years of shuffling between them, rebellious acting out, and school problems ensued. A stint of special education seemed to be succeeding and things at home seemed more settled when the mania erupted like a sudden storm. She suffered a truly harsh psychosis. Beyond the uncontrolled explosions of speech and action common to the condition, Sally had none of the ebullient expansiveness usually seen. Her pressured speech was wry and negative, tinged with paranoia, replete with delusions, and resistant to treatment.
The book provides an often obscured view of severe psychiatric disorder through the eyes of worried, confused parents.
Sally 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.
The story also details how severe illness stresses the family. Sally’s mother crowded into the scene, adding her antimedical bias to the mix of confusion and worry. Tension with his second wife, to whom Sally assigned the role of evil stepmother, 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 [the evil stepmother] 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.
The author reports no competing interests.
Book review accepted for publication March 2009 (doi: 10.1176/appi.ajp.2009.09020281).