Family dynamics are difficult enough to put to paper without the added pressure of describing how a group of blood relatives can overcome a disease like paranoid schizophrenia and, if not overcome it, live with it. Greg Bottoms's book, ANGELHEAD: My Brother's Descent Into Madness, is a painful but thoughtful look at a brother's illness and the complicated emotional and physical world into which his family enters with him.
The everyday activities of someone with this disease are astutely rendered here by Bottoms, who, although obviously touched in so many ways by his brother's journey, maintains an aura of calm and collectedness throughout the book. He doesn't pity his brother, himself, his parents, or the doctors who attempt to lay a melange of possible verdicts at the family's feet when prognoses are uncovered. The parts of the book that jump off the page at you are Bottoms's descriptions of his brother's facial expressions and physical reactions to things. And it is ultimately the honor and humanity of his family that shines through --- the decision-making, the second-guessing, their unending and determined faith that they will find a way to help Michael.
Michael's disease is colorful in terms of the images and thought patterns that plague him during his days. Bottoms manages to impart these strange and disturbing experiences to us without making us pity Michael but almost marvel at the depths of his imagination, as hurtful and dangerous as its repercussions may sometimes be. It is truly a wonder that a brother could write with such an alarming sense of presence and authority about something that has threatened to tear the very fabric of his life apart for so many years. Greg Bottoms clearly considered long and hard how to tell Michael's story, and his growing abilities have allowed him to draw us into a strange and hot-tempered world into which we would never have stepped otherwise --- unless we were in their same situation.
ANGELHEAD is a hard read, but extremely moving and indicative of one man's struggle to love unconditionally in spite of a debilitating disease that haunts his family like an unremitting demon.
Reviewed by Jana Siciliano on January 20, 2011