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Book Review: Hurry Down Sunshine by Michael Greenberg

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There's plenty of things parents of teens hope never happen to their children. Drug or alcohol abuse. Serious injury or death in an accident. Terminal illness. One that's probably small on the radar screen is having to suddenly commit your teen to a mental hospital.

That is exactly what Michael Greenberg faced when his 15-year-old daughter was, as he puts it, "struck mad" on July 5, 1996. Hurry Down Sunshine details his family's experiences in dealing with her seemingly sudden bipolar disorder.

Of course, hints of Sally's problem, once called manic depression, existed before her psychotic break. She'd spent several weeks reading and studying Shakespeare sonnets and fervently scribbling in the margins and her journals. Her ultimate "crack-up" finds her in a manic state on the streets of Greenwich Village, desperate to share what others cannot see: that we are all born with genius but society suppresses it as we grow older. Although Greenberg initially believed it a drug-induced episode, his wife feels it's more serious and calls a therapist, who recommends taking Sally to an emergency room. Greenberg does so and by the end of the day Sally is committed to the mental ward of a Manhattan hospital.

Without going into extensive details of Sally's treatment, Greenberg takes the reader inside the mental ward. He introduces us to a variety of individuals and families likewise struggling with the impact of a loved one suffering from a mental disorder. He leaves us with a feeling that there is shared compassion but, also, a shared feeling of shame, a feeling those whose relatives suffer from physical illness do not suffer.

Hurry Down Sunshine does not just focus on Sally. Greenberg also details his relationship with his brother, Steve, and Steve's own disabling mental health issues, as well as his distant relationship with his mother. As such, Sally's problems are a pivot that allows Greenberg to explore other aspects of his own life. As such, this is not a typical firsthand account of mental illness.

There are plenty of memoirs by people who have struggled with mental health issues, whether it be depression (William Styron's Darkness Visible), schizophrenia (Mark Vonnegut's Eden Express), bipolar disorder (David Lovelace's recent Scattershot), or obsessive compulsive disorder (Charles Barber's Songs from the Black Chair). Greenberg instead takes the approach of Pete Earley's Crazy, looking at the impact of bipolar disorder not from the patient's perspective but how Sally's "crack-up" affects her family.

Greenberg, though, focuses on the events of the summer of 1996. Earley's story covers a longer period and examines the difficulties in obtaining treatment. Greenberg also takes time to explore the connection between conditions like Sally's and genius and creativity. In fact, after Sally is released he takes some of her medication to assess its effects. He discovers the drugs "release her not from her cares, but from caring itself. For caring, exorbitant caring … is the psychotic's curse." As luck would have it, he takes the medication shortly before a movie producer insists on visiting Greenberg to discuss optioning a film for a novel Greenberg wrote.

Putting your private life and struggles on display for public consumption can never be easy. When it's such a personal aspect of your life and involves your teenage daughter, it can only be that much harder. Yet Greenberg's decision (and Sally's) to share that harrowing summer in an honest and forthright fashion undoubtedly contributes to the welcome reception Hurry Down Sunshine has received.

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About Tim Gebhart

Tim Gebhart is a book addict living in Sioux Falls, S.D., where he practices law to provide shelter for his family, books and dogs.
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