We live in a memoir-saturated era in which it often seems that nearly everyone has written a story about their experiences with substance abuse, parental neglect, the ravages of fame, and trips to the psychiatric ward. This glut makes it easy to dismiss memoirs as the overheated fabrications of narcissistic attention-seekers, and although many memoirs do unfortunately fall into that category, the best ones transcend their subject matter to show us how people live, love, fail, and triumph, often despite (or because of) various mental and neurological disorders. Here is a list of some memoirs focusing on mental health that I have found to be particularly engaging, honest, and unsentimental:
Rat Girl by Kristin Hersh (2010): In the same shimmering, incisive language that defines her songwriting, singer and guitarist Hersh recounts the alternately magical and terrifying year that her band, Throwing Muses, first made strides in the heady world of 1980s indie rock. It just also happened to be the same year that she discovered she had bipolar disorder and found out she was pregnant. Weaving diary entries and song lyrics into her narrative, she creates a gripping, often darkly comic, musing on youth, music, motherhood, and the creative bounty that springs from a poetically off-kilter perspective.
Angelhead: My Brother's Descent into Madness by Greg Bottoms (2000): It is hard to imagine anything more difficult than cutting a family member out of one's life, but this is exactly what Greg Bottoms had to do when his paranoid schizophrenic brother Michael set the house ablaze while their parents slept. Bottoms immediately draws the reader in by recounting the bad LSD trip that triggered Michael's illness: "My brother saw the face of God. You never forget a trauma like that." Even when Michael goes on to engage in the increasingly frightening behavior that ends in his commitment to a home for the criminally insane, he is rendered with an empathy that makes the story's outcome all the more heartbreaking.
Have You Found Her by Janice Erlbaum (2008):
Having already recounted her experiences as a rebellious teenager in Girlbomb: A Halfway Homeless Memoir, Erlbaum here sets out to dissect her own passion for helping young runaways and the unexpectedly harrowing situation that she finds herself in when she begins volunteering at a homeless shelter for girls. If you never thought that altruism could have a seedy underbelly, Erlbaum will set you straight. In the process, she sheds light on a disturbing manifestation of mental illness that proves downright eerie, as her chosen girl begins to exert a control over Erlbaum's life that threatens to undermine her own sanity.
The Three of Us: A Family Story by Julia Blackburn (2008): Of the books in this list, The Three of Us is the one that most resembles You Don't Look Like Anyone I Know, in that the author recounts life in a chaotic household with an uninhibited, mercurial mother and a father whose alcohol and barbiturate addictions ultimately clouded his talent as a poet. Since Blackburn's story takes place in Swinging London during the 1960s, however, it radiates a wry joie-de-vivre miles away from the humid misery of 1970s Orlando. Like Sellers, Blackburn ultimately comes to accept and forgive her parents; unlike Sellers, though, Blackburn is able to reconcile with her mother when caring for her towards the end of her struggle with leukemia.
Author Heather Sellers was born with a condition known as prosopagnosia (face-blindness). Once considered a rare condition, the Society for Neuroscience now estimates that approximately 2.5 percent of people in the USA have prosopagnosia. Their numbers include pioneering primatologist Jane Goodall, portraitist Chuck Close, and doctor and writer Oliver Sacks, most famous for writing case studies of people with unusual neurological conditions.
Perhaps even more disorienting than prosopagnosia is the rare Capgras syndrome, a condition in which a person recognizes friends and loved ones but believes that they have been replaced by impostors. Around the same time that Capgras syndrome was discovered in the 1920s, another French neurologist, Jean Lhermitte, first diagnosed a patient with peduncular hallucinosis, which causes colorful hallucinations of cartoon-like characters due to various brain abnormalities. To my knowledge, no one has yet written either a Capgras or Lhermitte syndrome memoir (although the novels The Echo Maker by Richard Powers and Atmospheric Disturbances by Rivka Galchen both feature characters with Capgras), but given Americans' lively, if voyeuristic, interest in mental health disorders, it's only a matter of time.
This article was originally published in February 2011, and has been updated for the
October 2011 paperback release.
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