Relative Insanity

By Nell Casey,
editor of "Unholy Ghost: Writers on Depression" and "An Uncertain Inheritance: Writers on Caring for Family"
Tuesday, October 14, 2008


Searching for the Roots of My Family's Schizophrenia

By Patrick Tracey

Bantam. 273 pp. $24


By Michael Greenberg

Other Press. 234 pp. $22

There is a moment in "Stalking Irish Madness" when the author, Patrick Tracey, looks at an old photo of two of his sisters, Chelle and Austine, and remarks, "There they are -- a memory." Their schizophrenia is diagnosed later, at different times: Chelle catapults into a kind of psychotic exuberance -- describing her breakup with Warren Beatty and her dates with Jesus -- while Austine becomes nearly catatonic, "pleading silently to some predatory personage for mercy." Both women are cruelly robbed of the people they once were, or once promised to be, in that photo.

After watching a loved one's identity vanish, those left in the wake of severe mental illness must struggle with disturbing questions: Where has she gone? Why has she gone? Will she come back? "I can accept my mother's death," writes Tracey, "but the gone-and-not-dead are not so easily forgotten." This haunting notion inspires him to undertake investigations into both his family's long history of schizophrenia and the origins of the illness in Ireland.

The first part of the book chronicles Tracey's lineage, and here the author offers astute descriptions of schizophrenia and the various ways it has taken hold of family members. But soon -- sooner than the reader may like -- he is journeying to Ireland to broaden his story, specifically to County Roscommon, where his ancestors are from and where, coincidentally, researchers discovered a gene linked to schizophrenia in 2002. But Tracey never pins down his ancestry or the answers he is seeking. Upon his return, he admits to being no closer to understanding the illness, but the journey has brought him closer to his sisters, both now spending their days at centers for the mentally ill. This anticlimax is the most moving testimony of the book: It makes painfully clear that both sorrow and surrender, crucially intertwined, attend efforts to bring meaning to the puzzle of mental illness.

In his memoir, "Hurry Down Sunshine," Michael Greenberg also stands witness to family madness. He recalls, with extraordinary insight, the mania and later the depression that took hold of his 15-year-old daughter, Sally. Greenberg wonders how he will simultaneously grieve for -- and learn to live with -- his missing daughter. After being brought home by the police for "acting crazy" in the streets, she becomes suddenly violent, wrestling her father to the ground and scratching his face when he tries to keep her from leaving their New York City apartment. She is buzzing with a revelation she wants to share with the world: that we are all born geniuses but our intelligence is suppressed as we grow up. "In the most profound sense Sally and I are strangers: we have no common language," Greenberg writes. "She's gone away like the dead, leaving this false shell of herself to talk at me in an invented dialect only it can understand."

A columnist for the Times Literary Supplement, Greenberg renders the details of his daughter's breakdown with lyrical precision. He ably describes the heightened sense of being that is often a component of madness -- and the way it beckons to outsiders. "Sally's need to feel understood is like one's need for air," he confides and then adds: "Isn't this everyone's struggle? To recruit others to our version of reality? To persuade? To be seen for what we think we are?" Greenberg's writing is so effective that it somehow removes the sense of shock one might have about a father taking a dose of his daughter's mood stabilizers, as Greenberg does in an effort to get closer to what Sally is feeling. "I feel dizzy and far away," he writes of his reaction, "as if I am about to fall from a great height, but my feet are nailed to the edge of the precipice, so that the rush of the fall itself is indefinitely deferred." His intelligence and compassion help give a sense that his daughter is recovering even as he himself goes too far.

And Sally does return. Without fanfare, she becomes herself again. "It's as if a miracle has occurred," Greenberg writes. "The miracle of normalcy, of ordinary existence." Alas, the miracle does not last, a difficult reminder, at the end of an otherwise triumphant story, of the enduring mystery of mental illness and the wretched way it can wind itself round a family.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company