Erica Horne, April 17, 2009 (view all comments by Erica Horne)
Hurry Down Sunshine, by Michael Greenberg, is right up my alley. I am a nurse working with geriatric psyche patients, and I love a good memoir. The story is about Sally, the author's fifteen year old daughter. Diagnosed as Bipolar, she exhibited classic symptoms of the disease, albeit at a younger age than most. I read this book in a matter of hours, engrossed in the story from beginning to end. The author's extended family adds a cast of colorful characters to the story also. (I found the plight of the authors brother as captivating as Sally's saga...)
This could have been a story about the hopelessness of psyche patients and the ineptness of psychiatrists, therapists and others inevitably encountered when one reluctantly enters a mental health facility, but it wasn't that at all. The Greenberg's were lucky to find a doctor who used both therapy and pharmacology to treat their daughter's disease, and a positive outcome was had. The author went to unusual lengths himself to learn more about the drugs his daughter was prescribed, and you have to applaud him for that also. I enjoyed the book and recommend it to anyone interested in learning more about Bipolar Disorder, or someone looking for a good weekend read.
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With that perfect opening line author Michael Greenberg draws us into his bewildering summer 12 years ago, when he and his family learned more than they wanted to know about the frustrating world of mental illness. He writes with a more literate pen than many, in this age of books written at the sixth-grade reading level, and does so with enough feeling that I got to know these people well enough that I wish his book were twice as long. If that's my only complaint, you know I have to rate this as one of the best books I've read in years.
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"Engaging" because of Greenberg's ability to tell the tale with emotion and immediacy. This wrenching family narrative is well worth reading to understand a parent's experience of extremely difficult and frightening events. It appears that Greenberg's daughter and family received inadequate and indifferent treatment, which is extremely troubling. His description of the events and their effects on his family is wrenching and raw.
"Problematic" first because Greenberg presents the story angrily. This is understandable and certainly warranted given the circumstances, but over the course of the book, the reader's impression is that Greenberg is angry in general. He describes the lack of adequate care his daughter received, and in the absence of context, I assume his report is accurate. However, he doesn't describe which interventions his daughter does receive, and when he alludes later to the course of her recovery from this episode, he is silent on whether he believes that her hospitalization and therapy were helpful. In many descriptions of his and his family's life, he accentuates the negative, which raises some concerns about the potential narrowness of his focus. Greenberg is trying to be clear and brutally honest about himself, but sometimes just seems brutal.
Further, Greenberg makes some puzzling errors that may speak both to his confusion and a lack of adequate editing. For example, he refers several times to "narcoleptics." He means "neuroleptics," a category of antipsychotic medication. "Narcoleptic" means a person with narcolepsy, a neurological sleep disorder. Unfortunately this error occurs several times; in and of itself this would just be unfortunate, but in conjunction with other areas of lack of clarity, it makes me wonder how well Greenberg and his family understood his daughter's treatment. Treatment can be confusing under the best of circumstances, and I would have no problem with a description of how confusing this experience was. However, it's not obvious whether Greenberg ever got clarity on this. Greenberg expresses his frustration that medical people do not know what causes bipolar disorder, a frustration that is, in fact, shared by many practitioners. However, Greenberg seems to have an ambivalent relationship with the idea that this disorder may be biologically based, often describing his shame and worry that he caused his daughter's bipolar disorder. Other family members worry that they, too contributed to the problem, and ruminate about the stigma associated with mental illness. One would expect that part of this story would be the family's realization that accepting this stigma is unreasonable, and the information that they were radicalized by this experience in some way. However, Greenberg does not report this, which seems to me to imply that he accepts the legitimacy of that stigma, and that a primarily biological description (if not explanation) of bipolar disorder is not sufficient for him. He still seems to see the origin of his daughter's illness as interpersonal or psychodynamic. While relational stress is often a contributor to increased symptoms and decreased functioning, a review of the research literature would show that stress and dysharmony are not sufficient to cause bipolar disorder in the absence of a biological substrate. The omission of this information seems strange to me given that Greenberg is a journalist and presumably is able to do his own background reading, call sources who could answer questions, etc. It again raises the question of where his editor was. The overall effect is of a story without a point, at least so far as the narrator's or his daughter's development or learning. In this way, its structure is that of a case report, not a plot.
Because the problems outweigh the benefits of this narrative, I would not recommend it for people or families trying to understand bipolar disorder. I would not assign it for a class on diagnosis, but might in a class focused on disconnections between families and providers.
For a more accurate and more nuanced report on bipolar disorder, read Jamison's An Unquiet Mind: A Memoir of Moods and Madness. Jamison describes her own bipolar disorder, and, as one of the major contributors to the scientific research on bipolar disorder, characterizes the diagnosis both more accurately and more hopefully.
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Other Press -
"Publishers Weekly Review"
by Publishers Weekly,
"Greenberg, a columnist for London's Times Literary Supplement, was living in Greenwich Village in 1996 when his 15-year-old daughter, Sally, suddenly became manic, importuning strangers and ranting in the streets about her newfound cosmic wisdom. She was a danger to herself and others, so her father and stepmother had her committed to a psychiatric facility. Greenberg was no stranger to mental illness; he'd been caring for his dysfunctional brother most of their adult lives. Still, Sally was so brilliant, so caring, he couldn't bear the thought of her ending up like his brother. During the 24 long days Sally spent in the hospital, Greenberg learned to cope. He watched a Hasidic family visiting with their mentally ill young man. He pondered his ex-wife going to cuddle with Sally, as if she were still a little girl. He listened to his mother explain her troubled marriage and the subsequent mental illness of his brother. He wondered at his present wife's resilience. After Sally's discharge, questions of how they would adjust to their new lives were complicated in very different ways. In this well-written and sincere memoir, Greenberg proves to be a caring man trying to find his way through the minefield of a loved one's madness. (Sept.)" Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
by Booklist (Starred Review),
"Greenberg...writes with unflinching honesty and heart....[A] startling piece of writing, by turns sobering and surreal."
by Kirkus Reviews,
"[V]ivid yet surprisingly detached prose....Bears enlightening and articulate witness to the sheer force of an oft-misunderstood disease."
by Library Journal (Starred Review),
"[E]legiac, beautifully crafted....Sure to become a new classic in the literature of mental illness; highly recommended."
HURRY DOWN SUNSHINE TELLS THE STORY OF THE extraordinary summer when, at the age of fifteen, Michael Greenbergs daughter was struck mad. It begins with Sallys visionary crack-up on the streets of Greenwich Village, and continues, among other places, in the out-of-time world of a Manhattan psychiatric ward during the citys most sweltering months. “I feel like Im traveling and traveling with nowhere to go back to,” Sally says in a burst of lucidity while hurtling away toward some place her father could not dream of or imagine. Hurry Down Sunshine is the chronicle of that journey, and its effect on Sally and those closest to her-her brother and grandmother, her mother and stepmother, and, not least of all, the author himself. Among Greenbergs unforgettable gallery of characters are an unconventional psychiatrist, an Orthodox Jewish patient, a manic Classics professor, a movie producer, and a landlord with literary dreams. Unsentimental, nuanced, and deeply humane, Hurry Down Sunshine holds the reader in a mesmerizing state of suspension between the mundane and the transcendent.
“The psychotic break of his fifteen-year-old daughter is the grit around which Michael Greenberg forms the pearl that is Hurry Down Sunshine. It is a brilliant, taut, entirely original study of a suffering child and a family and marriage under siege. I know of no other book about madness whose claim to scientific knowledge is so modest and whose artistic achievement is so great.” - Janet Malcolm, author of The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath & Ted Hughes and The Journalist and the Murderer
“One of the most gripping and disturbingly honest books I have ever read. The courage Michael Greenberg shows in narrating the story of his adolescent daughters descent into psychosis is matched by his acute understanding of how alone each of us, sane or manic, is in our processing of reality and our attempts to get others to appreciate what seems important to us. This is a remarkable memoir.” - Phillip Lopate, author of Two Marriages and Waterfront: A Journey Around Manhattan
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