I can’t quite imagine being the child of someone famous, having to live in the shadow of huge achievement – in any field – always dwarfed by the mania created by greatness, and somehow still trying to seek approval from this parent who is so clearly sublime. It is even harder to imagine doing all of this under the cloud of any sort of mental illness or instability – how to deal with one’s own personal shame and then the broader communal shame that would surely be aroused by media gossip and the interest of those hunters of the famous.
This is what Mark Vonnegut faced. He has dealt with it before in a memoir which I have never read and I have to confess, that while I have heard much about Vonnegut senior and his contribution to literature, I have never actually read his work. What intrigued me most about Mark Vonnegut’s latest account of his life, challenges and achievements, was the great heights to which he himself soared and the manner in which he almost seems to dismiss these magnificent achievements.
Here is a man who despite having been institutionalised for a psychotic break at a young age and then being forced to exist on medication to cope with his bipolar disorder or schizophrenia, still manages to write a book, graduate from Harvard Medical School, become a successful paediatric specialist, recover from addiction to alcoholism and still be stoic enough to revisit his past in a second memoir. And, I haven’t mentioned that he bought a house, got married, had children, got divorced and then remarried later in life … clearly the younger Vonnegut is a man of significant substance on his own right!!
While it is interesting to read Vonnegut’s interpretations of his mania and how he deals with it, this is not the best account of mental illness that I have read. I think that Dr Cameron West’s memoir, First Person Plural, presents a clearer picture of what it is like to suffer with any sort of mental incapacity. What Vonnegut does present on the fringes of his memoir are allusions to his family and their life as a unit. I think that it is this subtext that is most interesting. From Mark’s account there is definitely a predisposition to mania in his family and he repeatedly points to those members of his clan who ‘heard voices’ or drank to escape those voices.
The writer himself is seemingly a likeable guy and like him I did. I wasn’t totally gripped by this book but I definitely thought it worth reading and would go so far as to recommend it to others.
An excerpt can be read here.
‘Escaping the Straightjacket‘ – Vonnegut’s struggle to stay sane.
Father and son speak about mental illness here.