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Emma Forrest's memoir about having a mental illness—in her case, a type of bipolar disorder with rapid cycling between depression and mania—is engrossing and involving. She knows how to write poetically and viscerally, conveying the pain and despair of her illness in vivid terms. At times she comes across as self-absorbed and irritating in her self-abuse, but that is the often the nature of mental illness. When something goes wrong with your mind, it is difficult to control your thoughts and behavior; Forrest shows this well.
She started writing about music and popular musicians while still a teenager, and now has three novels and one edited collection of essays published. Forrest is also a successful screenwriter. And she's only in her mid-thirties, which speaks of a person with an impressive work ethic despite mental illness. She explains in the book that her response to problems is often to write: 'Anytime I want to die, I write a story instead' (195). Considering that she thinks of suicide every day, and sadness is still with her, it is not surprising she produces a lot of work.
There is a lot of self-destructive behavior described in her memoir, but it is a tale of survival as well. And what helped her survive seems to have been what helps most people survive, a connection to another person. Dr R, her psychiatrist from 2000 to 2008, was a wise man who guided her through difficult times, including an attempted suicide. One of the anchors of this book is her writing of his death, at the age of fifty-eight, from lung cancer, to the shock of all of his patients. She rang his office one day to hear a recorded message that it had closed, then later retrieved an email from his brother-in-law telling her of his death.
Her coping with the loss of such a significant figure is indicative of how wise a psychiatrist he was, as she ultimately survives and thrives, accepting the condition and the sadness that is persistent, but able to manage it. Throughout the book she includes entries from the online guestbook for Dr. R, written by former patients as well as friends, and these reveal the effect of his work upon his patients as well as aspects of his personality. In some ways this memoir works like a eulogy for the man who helped save her life and bring her back to living. Her parents and friends were important in her recovery, but she makes a crucial distinction about the value of Dr. R's work: 'The point of psychiatry, as encapsulated by Dr. R, is the outside observer. The person to whom you can tell your secrets, because you will never have to face them at the dinner table' (12).
The author shifts between different times throughout the book, but the first chapter contains a précis of what is to come. There is a lot of material about her relationship with GH, the Gypsy Husband who is a famous actor, including his abrupt ending of it, and some of this can become tedious. But as Rabbi Wolpe says to her so beautifully 'Love is extremely serious. I don't think this is trivial' (143). Her parents feature prominently, and she creates a warm and funny portrait of them, particularly her father, who has a wonderfully eccentric sense of humor.
At the beginning of the book she describes a visit to see John Everett Millais' painting of Ophelia at the Tate Gallery, and this figure of the drowning, mad young woman, ill-treated by Hamlet, forms a motif of sorts for the author's state of mind. Her first visits were as a thirteen year old, so sadness began young. Ophelia transforms somewhat by the end of the memoir, providing a satisfying closing of the loop of despair, and replacement of it by strength and hope.
© 2012 Sue Bond
Sue Bond is a writer and reviewer living in Brisbane, Australia. She has an erratically maintained blog, http://thewordygecko.wordpress.com, and degrees in literature, medicine, and creative writing.