“On July 5, 1996, my daughter was struck mad.” So begins Michael Greenberg’s searing, stunningly written, and mesmerizing memoir of the 15th year of his daughter, Sally, and her sudden, inexplicable descent into psychosis.
Michael Greenberg already had enough on his plate, it would seem; he ekes out a marginal existence as a freelance writer, lives cheaply in a friend’s sublet that is falling down around his ears, and has a crazy older brother to take care of, too. His second marriage is new and may be foundering. He and his mother are estranged.
The bright spots? His children. Son, Aaron, in college and doing well. And Sally, a brilliant and beautiful teenager who has overcome learning disabilities and is on the path to success until, one summer weekend, when she has a psychotic breakdown in the middle of a New York street.
Hurry Down Sunshine is a memoir of that breakdown and its aftermath: how it affects the author, his wife, Sally’s biological mother and stepmother, her brother, her paternal grandmother, and even some of the other patients in the hospital where Greenberg is forced to admit her.
But more than anything it is Michael and Sally’s story: a story of a preternaturally close father and daughter with more in common than even they know, and of their falling apart and growing back together despite the pain and alienation of Sally’s illness and Michael’s guilt and grief.
Greenberg is devastated by the changes in Sally: "It is as if the real Sally has been kidnapped, and here in her place is a demon…who has appropriated her body. The ancient superstition of possession! How else to come to grips with this grotesque transformation?"
Later, in talking about James Joyce’s daughter’s madness, Greenberg relates that Joyce’s daughter, Lucia, said that the reason she was mentally ill was because Joyce “had given her no morale.” Greenberg, even as he knows he has been a loving father, has to wonder what his role in Sally’s madness has been.
But like Joyce, who refused to believe that Lucia’s madness was anything more than a different, perhaps superior form of genius, so Greenberg has trouble coming to terms with the breadth and scope of Sally’s illness. He is, understandably, frightened of what it means for both her present and her future.
And in fact, both Sally’s mother and grandmother both try to explain the girl’s madness as a sort of teenaged “phase,” even as they are confronted by the huge and terrible mania that Sally presents, while brother Aaron is sure she has taken drugs. Eventually, however, everyone comes to terms with the reality. Sally is bipolar. She is unusually young for such a diagnosis and the disease has come on viciously and quickly, but weeks in a mental hospital under deep psychotropic drugs help Sally come out of her worst psychosis.
Then, of course, there are the months of medicine adjustment and the months of therapy, and the years of Sally’s recovery, a recovery which, like anyone with experience with bipolar disorder knows, never runs a straight line.
Greenberg, a superb writer, clearly kept notes during this terrible period a dozen years ago, and he captures each moment, each encounter with Sally and others with a clear and telling truth that moves the reader along as compellingly as the plot of any excellent thriller.
Michael Greenberg’s Hurry Down Sunshine is such a beautiful book, such an extraordinary story of love and madness and fear and strength and family, that it completely transcends any labeling. Into this gorgeous self-history, Greenberg weaves Jewish mysticism and religion, anecdote, history, and metaphor to produce memoir at its best: memoir that reads like poetry, the language so clear and clean and crisp; memoir that lets us into what madness feels like when it comes and when it goes and all the detritus it leaves behind. Greenberg has written an elemental book: elegant, moving, absorbing, and profound.