by Michael Greenberg
Other Press, 2008
Review by Christian Perring on Oct 21st 2008
Sally Greenberg has bipolar disorder. Hurry Down Sunshine is her father's account of her first manic and psychotic episode when she was 15 in the summer of 1996. Michael Greenberg is a writer of fiction and essays, living in Manhattan with Sally and his second wife Pat. The bulk of the book covers a short period -- a few weeks in the psychiatric ward -- with a briefer account of Sally's return to a functional state over the following months, when she was able to return to the fall semester of high school.
Michael Greenberg is a writer, and this memoir powerfully evokes his chaotic feelings as his daughter breaks down. She starts acting erratically, staying up all night, but at first he doesn't pay much attention, since it is the summer vacation. But when she becomes aggressive and out of control, he starts to realize that he needs to do something. Once he takes her to the emergency room, she is on the path of psychiatrists, diagnoses and medications. They go through with the hospitalization even though they have no health insurance, and so they have to pay for everything themselves. Greenberg never says how much it all cost or how he paid for it.
The days following Sally's hospitalization are frantic. At first, Michael and Pat are not allowed to visit. He phones his first wife Robin to tell her what has happened, and she can't believe that Sally is really mentally ill; she argues that their daughter is going through a spiritual experience, not a psychotic episode. When they are allowed to visit, Sally is on heavy medication, and says, "They stole my words." As readers, we get a vivid sense of the dilemmas and confusion Michael goes through. He has to work out who to trust, how to communicate with doctors, nurses, and the rest of his family, and how to plan for the future. When he speaks to his son, who is out of the country, he does not mention that Sally is in hospital, and then regrets the omission. He talks to the families of other people in the ward, and has to work out what to say when they tell him that Sally should stay away from their relative.
While there have been many memoirs about what it is like to be on a psychiatric ward, there are fewer on what it is like to have a family member go through a hospitalization and then come home. Greenberg goes through a great deal of strain, and at one point when he is arguing with Pat, they hit each other. She hides in the bathroom and he starts breaking down the door, forgetting how frightening this must be for Sally. But they get through it all, and Sally's condition starts to improve. The book ends on a hopeful note, although it is clear that Sally will probably have to contend with her mental illness for the rest of her life. Much of Greenberg's memoir is about how the family learns to adjust to Sally's changed status. One of their worries is whether she will end up like Michael's brother Steve, who has been on antipsychotic medication most of his life, and lives on his own, with no real friends, and depends on his family for everything. Michael's mother assures him that Sally is very different from Steve; it's an awkward moment for the reader, because it feels like Steve has been written off. But that would be unfair, because Michael does what he can to help his brother, and of course he hopes that Sally can have a rewarding way to earn money, and also can have close friends, lovers and maybe a long term relationship.
Hurry Down Sunshine is a gripping account of Greenberg's experience, bringing attention to the texture of events that brings them alive. His writing is simple and direct. Greenberg doesn't spend much time theorizing about what happens, but he does bring some perspective through the experience of other writers. He writes about Robert Lowell's experience of madness and his reactions to medication, and, especially moving, the agony of James Joyce in his relationship with his daughter Lucia, who had a serious mental illness. There is no suggestion that Greenberg is grandiosely comparing himself with these well known writers; rather, we get the sense that these are important figures for him, and by understanding what they went through, he is better able to work out how to make sense of what he is going through. Of course, neither Lowell nor Joyce can serve as role models, since Lowell ended up committing suicide and Joyce's attempts to help his daughter were largely unsuccessful. Their stories provide a sense of pathos in the book, showing the magnitude of the problem that Greenberg is facing. This is a wonderful book, and will be of great interest to anyone who has a family member with a serious mental illness.
© 2008 Christian Perring
Christian Perring, Associate Professor of Philosophy, Dowling College, New York.