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Originally published Friday, September 19, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Book review

"Hurry Down Sunshine": An honest chronicle of a daughter's mental illness

"Hurry Down Sunshine" is author Michael Greenberg's harrowing memoir of his teenaged daughter's descent into mental illness, treatment and tentative recovery.

Special to The Seattle Times

Author appearance

Michael Greenberg

"Hurry Down Sunshine" will be discussed at 7 p.m. Tuesday, Third Third Place Books, 17171 Bothell Way N.E., Lake Forest Park; free (206-366-3333 or www.thirdplacebooks.com).

Twelve years ago on a sultry summer's day, 15-year-old Sally Greenberg had a psychotic episode that carried her out of the Greenwich Village apartment she shared with her father and stepmother and into the streets, where she accosted passers-by, ran into traffic and preached passionate incoherencies to the cops who showed up to take her away.

In "Hurry Down Sunshine," (Other Press, 234 pp., $24.95), Michael Greenberg chronicles his daughter's baffling itinerary through madness — the spectacular crackup, the psychiatric ward and the drug-calibrated aftermath.

He concedes that there may have been foreshadowings of his daughter's mental illness — from her early difficulties in deciphering the alphabet despite a preternaturally sharp wit, to her adolescent theatricality and her intense empathy for the most vulnerable in the world, whether babies or homeless people.

But he and Sally's mother, and then her stepmother, had tended to justify those as the signs of an exceptional child. As a writer himself, married to a choreographer, Greenberg knew the importance of allowing latitude for one's imagination. And as a native New Yorker, "I have a high tolerance for aberrant behavior, I suppose," he writes.

But the morning after the police brought his daughter home, there was no mistaking the realization that Sally had slipped into a profoundly manic state — words tumbling forth with an urgency that superseded meaning, wild actions propelled by a blazing energy that engulfed and threatened to devour.

The trip to the hospital emergency room, Sally's commitment to a psychiatric clinic, the uncomfortable dealings with his ex-wife and the bewildering hours that turned into days and then weeks — Greenberg takes the reader through the whole harrowing ordeal.

Despite its focus on Sally, "Hurry Down Sunshine" includes a substantial cast of characters. Her immediate family and close relatives, including a mentally ill uncle, were affected in various ways by her illness, and their responses ran the gamut from denial to introspection to self-blame.

Sally's confinement put new pressures on relationships that were tenuous anyway — between Greenberg and his brother, between Greenberg and his ex-wife, between his ex-wife and his current wife, even between his current wife and their landlord.

Beyond that, there is an impressive roster of individuals who may be regarded as secondary characters to this particular story, but whose own stories, even as only partially shaded in by the author, are shimmering reminders of the magnificent epic of human experience being played out in the world every day. Greenberg deftly shows that sometimes the ones who bear the "stigma" of a diagnosis can possess potent distillations of truth, while others who move about in the "real world" seem to have only a marginal grasp on reality. At one point even Greenberg, who has assumed the role of stalwart guide through this discomfiting tour of madness, engaged in behavior that will leave his readers shaken.

Greenberg sought solace and insight by studying the lives of others who have gone through similar painful experiences — poet Robert Lowell's own lifelong battle with mental illness, and James Joyce's desperate attempts to explain and accommodate his daughter Lucia's mental pathology.

But there are no real answers, and no happy endings. With family support, medications and the help of a psychiatrist, Sally was able to negotiate a path back into some kind of stabilized life. But as Greenberg's painfully honest book makes clear, there are patches of calm and then there are setbacks for anyone dealing with mental illness. It is an unending series of negotiations with the chemistry of one's brain.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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