Monday, November 10, 2008

Notable New Books

Four new books tell the true stories of mental illness
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 Bound for illness: Tracey's sisters Austine, 10, and Michelle, 17 from Stalking Irish Madness.
Courtesy of Patrick Tracey
Bound for illness: Tracey's sisters Austine, 10, and Michelle, 17 from Stalking Irish Madness.
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According to the National Institute of Mental Health, one in 17 Americans suffer from serious mental illness. Four new memoirs deal with the harsh reality of people and families who cope with a chronic, disabling condition. Two focus on bipolar disorder (sometimes called manic depression), which is found in about 5.7 million adults. Another examines a family legacy of bipolar disorder and suicide. The fourth addresses schizophrenia, which afflicts an estimated 2.4 million Americans. This severe disease causes hallucinations and delusional thinking. USA TODAY critiques the new titles.

Hurry Down Sunshine
By Michael Greenberg
Other Press, 234 pp., $22

In this powerful memoir, writer Michael Greenberg describes the terrifying summer his 15-year-old daughter, Sally, became a stranger to herself and to her father. In August 1996, the lively teenager became, almost overnight, manic and uncontrollable, unable to stop talking as words poured out. The cause: the onset of bipolar disorder. Taken to a Manhattan emergency room, Sally was immediately placed in the hospital's psychiatric unit.

With spare, unemotional prose, Greenberg captures what it's like to have a mentally ill child and the way the disease strips him of his sense of control over his daughter's health. He describes the powerful anti-psychotic medications that Sally receives, and how she responds. Eventually she is released from the hospital and returns to high school.

Greenberg offers no miracle cure: Sally struggles with the disorder today. And to his credit, he does not demonize the overworked but caring doctors who treat his daughter.

Stalking Irish Madness: Searching for the Roots of My Family's Schizophrenia
By Patrick Tracey
Bantam, 273 pp., $24

In this fascinating memoir/travelogue, Irish-American journalist Patrick Tracey describes the journey he has taken in life because of schizophrenia.

His story begins in Boston as two of his older sisters were diagnosed in their early 20s with the disease. One withdrew into herself in dark despair. The other acted out in outrageous ways, thinking she was the bride of Christ. Thirty years later, both live in group homes. Their fates seemed linked to that of their Irish-American grandmother, who was institutionalized for 31 years with schizophrenia until her death.

Tracey fled the USA for many years, until a conversation with a London doctor led him back to the disease that haunted him. He interviewed scientists: Its cause remains a mystery. He traveled to Ireland looking for his grandmother's relatives. In the end, he returns to Boston to reconnect with his sisters.

Scattershot: My Bipolar Family
By David Lovelace
Dutton, 292 pp., $24.95

The author of Scattershot has an extraordinary grasp of what it means to have bipolar disorder. David Lovelace grew up in Massachusetts with bipolar parents. His brother is bipolar, as is David. In the year 1986, every Lovelace male was committed to a psychiatric hospital at some point.

Only his sister does not have the disease.

Yet Scattershot is not a horror story but rather a portrait of a loving if sometimes crazy family. Lovelace's father is a brilliant theologian and an expert on Puritan thinkers including Cotton Mather. His mother is an artist. Lovelace is a published poet and bookseller.

He details how his parents, his brother and he all follow the same biochemical pattern. They zoom from manic highs of creativity to bottomless lows. This empathetic memoir illustrates that medication is as essential for people with bipolar disorder as insulin is for diabetics.

Blue Genes: A Memoir of Loss and Survival
By Christopher Lukas
Doubleday, 248 pp., $24.95

In Blue Genes, TV producer and director Christopher Lukas describes the shadow of sorrow that suicide has cast over his life.

The book opens in 1997 with the suicide of the author's older brother, the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist J. Anthony Lukas. This continued a terrible family tradition. Their 33-year-old mother had committed suicide in 1941, when her sons were 6 and 8, after struggling with bipolar disorder for years.

In Blue Genes, Lukas movingly describes what it was like to grow up the child of a suicide. Lukas' father became an alcoholic, and the boys were sent to boarding school. He writes about feeling abandoned and angry. He also describes his loving but complex relationship with his brother.

Yet this memoir also affirms the joy Lukas has found in being a husband and father. His story will resonate with readers who have lost friends or family members to suicide.

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