In Hurry Down Sunshine (2008), Michael Greenberg told the story of his daughter Sally’s breakdown—of how, in the summer of 1996, she “was struck mad.” His extraordinary tale of the journey he and his daughter make following Sally’s collapse tells us as much about the complexity and mystery of those conditions we call mental illness as it does about what happens within a family when all moments—moments that often extend across lifetimes—become informed, and transformed, by the confusion, pain, and suffering brought on when one family member goes mad.
“Hurry Down Sunshine,” Oliver Sacks has written in these pages,
may provide a sort of guide for those who have to negotiate the dark regions of the soul—a guide, too, for their families and friends, for all those who want to understand what their loved ones are going through. Perhaps, too, it will remind us of what a narrow ridge of normality we all inhabit, with the abysses of mania and depression yawning to either side.1
In his new book, Beg, Borrow, Steal: A Writer’s Life, a compilation of forty-four essays (culled from 150) he contributed to the Times Literary Supplement between 2003 and 2008, Greenberg is again our guide, this time not only to his life and Sally’s, and to how they dealt with the aftermath of having their lives publicly exposed, but to a wide range of subjects, most of which derive from his sometimes darkly comic struggles to become a writer.
Unlike most American writers of his generation, Greenberg, born in 1952, never went to college. Raised in a middle-class Jewish neighborhood in Rockaway, New York (his father owned a scrap-metal business), he attended an academically rigorous cheder (Hebrew day school) until the eighth grade, but left home soon after.
Among the family my fights with [my father] were famous. The last one occurred when I was fifteen. I followed him around the apartment, taunting him with a line from my latest poem, “Which do you think is worth more, flesh or steel?” At the end of his rope, he took a wild swing at me. I dodged it easily, hearing the crush of bone as his fist hit the wall. I fled the apartment, and when I returned, three days later, his hand was in a cast. “You have guts, but no common sense,” he said. “One cancels out the other. A total waste.”
Two years later, Greenberg dropped out of school because he was “sold on the idea that it was a shortcut to becoming a writer,” and for the next thirty years supported his writing habit with a series of jobs that seem more fascinating in the telling than the doing. He was a cab driver, a furniture mover, a fire alarm salesman, a journalist, a postal worker, a waiter, and a street peddler; he worked in bookstores, gave…
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