Aristotle said that "no excellent soul is exempt from a mixture of madness.” And it seems that many of the great and creative minds of history have been, to put it poetically, excellent souls. Still, to see a loved one wrestle with mental illness is usually more frustrating and heartbreaking than inspiring. Inspiration is there, however, waiting to be uncovered by the patient and the gifted. Michael Greenberg's honest new memoir, HURRY DOWN SUNSHINE, demonstrates such patience and skill as he retells his teenage daughter’s first psychotic break and its immediate aftermath.
On summer break from school, spending time with friends in her New York City neighborhood, 15-year-old Sally starts acting strangely. Always a bit different from her peers, due to eccentricities, her learning disabilities and her empathy for others, her father Michael chalks the changes up to normal teenage behavior. But it becomes apparent that it is more than a moody obsession with Shakespeare and the Bible, music and poetry, when Michael comes home to find the police in their apartment and his daughter ranting and almost unrecognizable. Next comes the difficult decision to hospitalize Sally, hoping that the episode will pass and fade into memory.
But after she is stabilized and evaluated, it becomes painfully clear that Sally is in need of real and ongoing mental health care. Michael begins at once to try to understand his daughter’s illness, navigate the world of mental health care and mourn for the loss of the “normal” Sally he knew.
Along with his wife, a dancer with her own complicated relationship to Sally, his ex-wife, who is Sally's mother, and his own mother, he visits Sally in the hospital, watching as the drugs control her mania and soften her delusions. The mental world Sally lives in is one of hope, peace, magic and genius, but it is disturbing as well. The medication is harsh and dulling, and she is transformed once again. All of this trauma reminds Michael of his older brother, who has been living with mental illness his entire life. Michael worries that Sally will end up like Steve, vulnerable and paranoid, unable to care for himself. Her breakdown forces Michael and his mother to come to terms with Steve's illness and their relationship with him.
In the end, though, this is the story of a father taking an emotional journey as he watches his daughter suffer and try to make peace with something hard to understand and beyond her control. Sally and Michael are a loving and kind pair but also stressed and hurt. Greenberg's writing is delicate, even when the subject is harsh (and even though he insists on referring to Sally's “crack-up”), and compelling at all times. He doesn't try to educate readers about mental illness; rather, he relates his experiences and his daughter as he sees her.
HURRY DOWN SUNSHINE is both optimistic and terribly sad. While Sally is stabilized, it is obvious that her life will not always be easy. She remains a passionate and spiritual young woman but haunted as well. Michael Greenberg's book is enlightening and written with a clear and careful voice; it is a highly personal memoir and a lovely tribute to his daughter and family.
Reviewed by Sarah Rachel Egelman on September 9, 2008