Memoirs proliferate like kudzu,” wrote Randy Cohen in a recent issue of the New York Times Magazine. A quick perusal of the next week’s book review confirmed his assertion: memoirs of a drunken dad, of eating in China, of marriage to a Maori, and of the death of a child. Memoirs that chronicle divorce, widowhood, spiritual quests, and the renovation of charming properties in Tuscany and the south of France fairly explode from bookstore windows; Jeannette Walls’s The Glass Castle has been ensconced on the best-seller list for more than 128 weeks—and counting. Memoirs, it seems, are us.
Into this cacophony of me-me-me voices comes Michael Greenberg’s spare but fierce Hurry Down Sunshine, an account of the summer his fifteen-year-old daughter, Sally, was “struck mad.” Unlike the operatic scale of Walls’s tale of her spectacularly dysfunctional family, Greenberg’s story is limited almost exclusively to a couple of months in 1996, when Sally experienced a psychotic break. Certain that she possessed secret yet glorious knowledge, Sally tried to share her vision with her father and stepmother: “She could see the hidden life in things, their detailed brilliance, the funneled genius that went into making them what they are. . . . The longer she speaks, the more incoherent she becomes, and the more incoherent she becomes, the more urgent is her need to make us understand her!”
The bulk of the book is devoted to Greenberg’s attempt to cope. He is, by turns, grieving, sick with worry, and taunted by hope. Sally is given haloperidol, a “chemical lobotomy” that renders her “not at rest so much as removed from consciousness, as if she was stopped in her tracks by a stun gun.” She limps through the next few weeks and is eventually “wrenched from the severest form of psychosis—exorcism by drugs, just enough for her to go home.” But posthospital Sally is not the daughter Greenberg knew. He deftly limns her alarming new shape: “Her feet are bare, her face pale and shiny and, it seems to me, rounder than usual. She seems less vivid than she used to be, thickened by sleep, more stolid, yet less present, it seems, as if the live wire of her being has been grounded.” In his desperate desire to understand, he downs a dose of her drugs. The experience is revelatory: “I am sitting on the couch, while Sally is at the table tapping her right foot, an expenditure of energy that seems both profligate and amazing. . . . On some fundamental level I have, like Sally, been barred from experiencing the impact of being fully alive in the world.”
Greenberg falters only when he reconstructs dialogue. Conversations sound stilted, as though they were scripted rather than spoken. “I don’t want special treatment. I won’t stand for it!” shouts Sally during an argument. The words are arch and seem as if they had bubbled up from another time. Greenberg is, no doubt, struggling with his own ability to remember what was said, and admittedly the task is not an easy one. Still, the lengthy stretches of unconvincing talk are liabilities in an otherwise powerful tale.
The book’s fundamental strength arises from Greenberg’s insistence on facing the demons that held his girl in their dark thrall. Sally’s descent and tentative return form the map for this story; Greenberg’s courage lies in his willingness to follow her down that terrible path, no matter where it leads.