What Would You Do?

Imagine Me GoneThis month, Snotty Literati continues its tour through tragedy. (We need a break.) We’ve hit suicide, brutality, abandonment, cancer, chemo, infidelity . . . and now we’re onto MENTAL ILLNESS! Adam Haslett brings us a family wrought with the chaos of mental illness. John and Margaret have three children: Celia, Alec, and Michael. John has unintentionally gifted his children with a probable genetic predisposition for psychological problems—but it is Michael who inherits his father’s mental chaos. This book fully deals with the gamut of the familial struggle from suicide to institutionalization, from medication to addiction, from family guilt to co-dependence. It’s all here. THERE ARE SPOILERS AHEAD.

Jennifer: Well, here we go. Your initial thoughts?

Lara: This is a pretty devastating book, written by a guy with personal experience. It feels like you are getting a front row seat to view the havoc mental illness can wreak on a family. It helps that with Haslett’s personal experience comes some serious writing chops. That was really what kept me going as I read this on the beach. Let me clarify. This is not a beach book, but it’s an important book. I think it gives a sobering look at an important issue that needs more attention, empathy, support, and resources all the way around.

Why don’t you set up the story for our readers . . .

Jennifer:  Okay, so John is this English dude who proposes to a young American Margaret. Then, on the brink of marriage, John suffers from a mental breakdown and ends up hospitalized. This is how and when Margaret learns about the illness—but not really. She seeks answers when his doctor asks if she loves him. Answering yes, she somewhat knowingly embarks on her future. Their future eventually ends up back in the United States. John’s mental illness does not go away, but he hides it—to an extent. But he can only contain his demons for so long; he eventually commits suicide. Margaret is left with three kids. They grow up. Celia ends up a social worker/counselor on the west coast. Alec is a political journalist in Manhattan. Michael is, though, the heart of the novel—obsessed with music and the legacy of slavery in America, revealing a hyper-intellect and a campaign for reparations for Black people. Perpetually medicated, often hallucinating, his trek through life is what we’re watching. After years of struggle, Alec tries to single-handedly get his brother off of all drugs, believing this is what Michael needs. Together, they sequester themselves in a cabin in Maine for Michael to go through withdrawal.  ANOTHER SPOILER, WHICH IS TOTALLY HINTED AT IN THE BEGINNING OF THE BOOK. Michael drinks himself to death in Maine.

I guess we’d both agree on the writing chops of Haslett and the brilliance of the depiction. We might disagree on the final assessment. The book, as a whole, is pretty hopeless, I thought. Life like this sucks. Death is inevitable. Not a lot of redemption going on here. I think I know something about mental illness that I previously didn’t know; in that, the book is very successful. I was given very little hope, however.

Lara: It is a very hopeless story. At the same time, Margaret acknowledges that she wouldn’t have changed her decision to marry John and have the tumultuous life they did. I think Margaret cherishes the memories—even the ones fraught with pain and frustration. From that view, I think she’s the unsung hero of the book, having carried much of the burden that comes with caring for and living with loved ones with mental health needs.

John was very deliberate in his decision to end his life and ensuring he had time with each child before doing so—despite the fact they had no idea of his plans. What did you think of this?

Jennifer: Oh, I think it’s bad, no matter how one does it. What, he leaves each kid with a pleasant memory? No, he left them messed up.

In truth, I don’t even know how to talk about this book. It feels like some kind of overwhelming quagmire. What could any of them do? Margaret is an unsung hero; perhaps, Haslett should’ve sung about her louder. Really, isn’t that the critical question: Is life with mental illness worth living? (And, then, if it is: how do we best make it so?) There were many questions still unexplored. Did Alec do the wrong thing by trying to get his brother med-free? Should they have institutionalized Michael so that they could live lives? What about his life? What is the value of any of these lives?

Lara: I get the feeling that Margaret was grateful to have the time she had with John and Michael. I don’t think she wished either of them dead, but at the same time. . . and this is touchy ground . . . I think Margaret feels relief for both of them when they’re dead and the remaining living family.

Jennifer: It’s very touchy—but it’s important. I think Haslett could’ve done more with it. Is there relief? Do we see it? I felt like the book didn’t wrestle with quite a bit of this. Does Margaret get that part of her story told? Do we know how or when or what has been involved in her coming to terms with her own life? Haslett, I think, got to some parts that I haven’t seen other writers get to, for sure. But I wanted that step further along.  Or culpability. How does the book deal with that? I think the book was a brilliant depiction of illness; it didn’t push up against the literary boundaries, if that makes any sense. It left unexplored territory, though it foraged very close to the diseased mind. I think I’m saying that the book was ultimately dissatisfying! Though he’s a great writer!

Lara: That’s fair. We are left with Margaret at peace but Alec suffering immense guilt (even that is only learned from a sentence or two by Margaret or maybe Celia). Haslett could have added another thirty-ish pages to cover the aftermath that each of them felt and dealt with. Imagine Me Gone is a start. A start for people to get exposed to the reality of mental illness in a family and how one family deals with it. It certainly isn’t everyone’s story or experience. But when writers can provide an accessible view—especially through a lens of personal experience—we can expose ourselves to it and encourage others to do the same.

Jennifer: I would agree. I felt like Haslett really exposed the brutality of it all. Michael’s mind-spinning antics. Wow. (And Haslett does this brilliantly.) I think the first instance that I noticed how oppressive it is—and it is oppressive—was when Michael seems to be writing his Aunt Penny, but he’s actually having some kind hallucination or wild imagining about the family’s trip across the Atlantic. In his head, it turns out they cross over on some kind of ship holding prisoners, and the ship is involved in a child prostitution ring. Michael’s mind is so perfectly portrayed. It’s heartbreaking, if you have even a smidgen of experience with mental illness. I felt the burden with the family. The gritty reality is the book’s strength. The question remains: how does a novel differ from reality? What makes for a successful novel? Celia, close to the end, speaks of how her work has been affected.

“That’s what I used to do, press for more and more family history, excusing it to myself as interest and attention, when really it was a distraction from the suffering in front of me, a desire to find the passage of experience that would explain their pain away. What good plot didn’t offer that? A meaning sufficient to account for the events. But as time went on, I realized that my clients’ lives weren’t works of art.”

But, interestingly, Haslett’s book is supposed to be just that, a work of art. So does it provide the meaning sufficient to account for the events?

Or is mental illness simply hopeless? Is there any meaning to offer?

What do these characters learn or discover at the end of this story?

Lara: Well, I think Margaret always understood the burden the afflicted felt—or could at least appreciate it. It wasn’t until the beginning of Michael’s ending that Alec got it.

“For the first time I [Alec] saw him now as a man, not a member of the family. A separate person, who had been trying as hard as he could for most of his life simply to get by.”

And then after Michael’s passing:

“I had never understood before the invisibility of a human. How what we take to be a person is in fact a spirit we can never see. Not until I sat in that room, with the dead vehicle that had carried my brother through his life, and for which I had always mistaken him.”

I don’t know that Haslett’s book provides meaning so much as it provides a glimpse. An attempt for readers to be exposed to one family’s story. Maybe the meaning here is that we need to keep hearing and seeing these stories so that one day we can attempt to understand them.

Jennifer: There were, in conclusion, some great moments here. Consider these bits, from Michael’s point of view:

On filling out forms in the doctor’s office.

“What I have always found most comforting about these forms is the trace of hope I get as I’m filling them out. How they break your life down into such tidy realms, making each seem tractable, because discrete, in a way they never are beyond the white noise of the waiting room. You get that fleeting sense that you’re on the verge of being understood, truly and fully, and for the first time, if you could just get it all down in black and white before the receptionist calls your name.”

On love.

“I don’t know what most people mean when they use the word ‘love’. If they haven’t contorted their lives around a hope sharp enough to bleed them empty, then I think they’re just kidding.”

On their family.

“I wondered how any of them—Celia or Alec or my mother—managed to live anywhere but on the lip of his grave . . .”

Powerful prose. So do you recommend it?

Lara: I do. But not if you need something light. And certainly not while vacationing at the beach. This is heavy stuff. Good stuff. Important stuff. But heavy stuff.

Next Up!

We are hitting up John Williams’ classic, Stoner. Don’t worry, it’s not drug-lit. And hopefully it will be the break of our tragedy tour we’ve been on this summer. See you in August!