Recently I’ve read a number of memoirs about the terrible things that can happen to ordinary, well-meaning middle-class parents when their children approach adolescence: their offspring can develop eating disorders, run away, or turn into meth addicts, among countless other horrors. Often the parent’s sense of disappointment, of being ripped off, pervades these memoirs. "I didn’t drink while pregnant," they insist, "I fed him organic food, I paid for the best schools! I don’t deserve this!" The unspoken message seems to be: Reader, be not smug! If it can happen to me, it can, and might, happen to you.
Hurry Down Sunshine, Michael Greenberg’s account of his daughter’s first psychotic episode at the age of fifteen, is refreshingly free of that disappointment–there are no long-sighing paragraphs about what his lovely, exceptional child Could Have Been. Instead, this beautifully written memoir is suffused with Greenberg’s intense and almost overwhelming empathy for his daughter. What are the limits of this empathy? How far can a father follow his daughter as she descends into her madness?
Quite far, it turns out. In the summer of 1996, Sally begins accosting strangers on the street to share her vision of “the hidden life in things, their detailed brilliance, the funneled genius that went into making them what they are.” Everyone is a genius, she explains, but their genius has been “suppressed in them, as it has been in her.” And even as she becomes more and more incoherent, Greenberg is “galvanized by her sheer aliveness.” He wants, desperately, to understand the mysterious journey his daughter is taking (“I feel like I’m traveling and traveling with nowhere to go back to,” she says) and, if he can’t bring her back, to go with her as far as he can. “I can’t witness her disintegrations without somehow taking part in them,” he says, “and, closing my eyes, I feel myself racing, too, as if her flutter has lodged inside of me.”
James Joyce, Greenberg notes, had a similar relationship with his mentally ill daughter, Lucia. Joyce became convinced that his undeniably manic Finnegan’s Wake was the source of his daughter’s disease. “His supersition,” Greenberg says, “was rooted in the almost telepathic empathy between them. He instinctively understood the scorched loneliness of Lucia’s condition. Madness wrenches us from the common language of life, the language that Joyce too had departed from, or surpassed.” When Joyce took his daughter to see Carl Jung, the famous psychoanalyst refused to analyze her, but instead wanted to analyze Joyce, because Joyce’s “unconscious psyche” was “too identified with Lucia for him to accept that she was mad.” Jung likened Joyce and Lucia to “two people going to the bottom of a river, one falling, the other diving.”
Perhaps the most fascinating moment in the book occurs when Greenberg, “unable to bear waiting any longer for Sally to get out from under her pitiless ball of fire,” tries to “see the world as she does” and takes a dose of her medication. Soon he begins to feel dizzy, as if he is “about to fall from a great height but my feet are nailed to the edge of the precipice, so that the rush of the fall is infinitely deferred.” He tries to read from the New York Times, but he can’t make sense of it. Time slows to a crawl. When he tries to accomplish simple household tasks, he finds himself overcome by “a panic of indifference, if such a thing is possible.” He realizes that the drugs “release her not from her cares, but from caring itself.” Though, of course, the medications do not act the same way in a manic brain as in a non-manic one, Greenberg has a sense of what his daughter is experiencing. Nightmarishly, a movie producer calls while he’s under the influence of the medication, wanting an immediate meeting, and Greenberg finds himself stabbing himself in the hand with a fork in order to shake off the stupor.
There is much more to admire about this rare and lovely memoir. There are several interesting, sharply sketched characters: Greenberg’s choreographer wife–Sally’s step-mother–who provides a powerful, practical perspective; Sally’s biological mother, who wants to see Sally’s illness as a sign of spiritual sensitivity; and Greenberg’s eccentric and deteriorating brother, whose dependence on Greenberg makes the author worry that his daughter will one day depend on her own brother this way, needing him for groceries, money, and stability. The character of Greenberg himself is the hardest to get a bead on. Like a good novelist, but like few memoirists I have ever read, he has almost completely vanished into his subject. The reader doesn’t miss him, though, partly because his observations are so specific and artful–his evocation of a summer in Greenwich Village in the 1990’s is alone worth the price of the book: the cafes and pornographic bookstores, the playgrounds, the rent-controlled apartments with broken air conditioners and windows held together with duct tape. But it’s also because the book isn’t exactly about him. It is his story, but it is about Sally.
This is a book written with exceptional care, rapt attention, and unusual modesty. Michael Greenberg wants to get it right. In an era when memoirists are expected to play fast and loose with the truth, it is a real pleasure to read a book from a writer for whom truth and beauty both matter so much.