The mid-1960s to the mid-1970s were the heyday of the crazy-girl book: books by and about young women who lost their minds. Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar, Joanne Greenberg's haunting I Never Promised You a Rose Garden, Go Ask Alice, Sybil. There were books about crazy boys too, of course, such as Mark Vonnegut's The Eden Express. But that's just boys. Everybody knows they're crazy. There was something disturbingly, voyeuristically hypnotic about those hippie Ophelias--electrode paste on their temples beneath their center-parted hair, Jefferson Airplane on the sound track, psychedelic chaos in their brains.
The genre they founded has lived on, and each decade has given it a different period savor. The 1990s produced slacker crack-ups like Girl, Interrupted and Prozac Nation. Now, in the 2000s, we have Hurry Down Sunshine (Other Press; 234 pages), Michael Greenberg's account of his daughter Sally's psychotic break, which she experienced at the tragically precocious age of 15.
Sally had always been odd. She dressed eccentrically. She stayed up till all hours reading Shakespeare and scribbling in notebooks. But on July 5, 1996, something in her mental chemistry passed a tipping point. She started accosting strangers on the street. She frightened her friends. She was certain she was on the verge of titanic revelations that she had a duty to share with the world. Her sentences became tangled strings of self-devouring wordplay. "People get up-set when they feel set up," she told Greenberg. "Do you feel set up, Father?"
Greenberg took her to an emergency room, and with inexorable swiftness Sally was ingested by the medical world, pronounced psychotic and committed to a locked ward. Greenberg joined the ranks of huddled pilgrims who lined up every day for visiting hours. (One morning he took artichokes to Sally. "Art makes you choke, Father," she said. "You should give it up. It's a false god who causes you nothing but pain.") As Sally's life fell apart from the inside out, Greenberg's began collapsing from the outside in. He fought with his wife, Sally's stepmother. He drank. As a freelance writer, he had no health insurance; the first bill for Sally's meds came to $724.
There is a dancing, dazzling siren seductress at the heart of this book and of all books like it, and it is not Sally (or Sybil or Sylvia) but madness itself. When Sally turns manic, it's as if some interstellar alien god is speaking through her, and you hang on to its every word. As a person, you want her to get better, but as a reader, you can't get enough of the crazy. ("Mania is a glutton for attention," says Dr. Lensing, Sally's gifted therapist. "It craves thrills, action, it wants to keep thriving, it will do anything to live on.") It's the old Romantic lie of mania, that it represents a heightened version of the self, a genius too great to be comprehensible. But the siren is a monster, and its song is just an endless chain of meaningless epiphanies and empty fireworks.
The terrible irony of Hurry Down Sunshine is that you can hear in Greenberg's beautiful figurative language the not-so-distant echo of Sally's manic speech. They're both full of surprise metaphorical connections ("her eyes turn to polished coal") and abrupt right-angle turns. His literary talent is not unrelated to her curse: the startling associative imagery that gives his writing its power is like a domesticated version of the madness that nearly carried away his daughter's life.
Greenberg's daughter lost her mind. Elizabeth McCracken's son never had time to find his. He died in her womb when she was nine months pregnant. There can be few grimmer topics for a book than a stillborn baby, but I'll say this for McCracken's memoir, the unwieldily titled An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination (Little, Brown; 192 pages): it's the funniest book about a dead baby that you will ever read.
McCracken is a novelist (The Giant's House), and Figment is the story of her pregnancy, her grieving and finally the birth of her second child, a baby boy, a year later. It is, as McCracken writes, "a story so grim and lessonless it's better not to think about at all." But reading it is a mysteriously enlarging experience. It could pair neatly with Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking: it's hard to imagine two more rigorous, unsentimental guides to enduring the very bottom of the scale of human emotion.
At the extreme depths that McCracken plumbs, language itself breaks down. "Was I a mother?" she asks herself, and after the baby's death but before its birth, "Was I pregnant? There should be a different word for it, for someone who hasn't yet delivered a dead child." But McCracken's sense of humor doesn't fail; it merely turns an inky black. An intern assigned to check her cervix "rummaged around in the manner of an unhappy wife looking for a wedding ring in a garbage disposal." When McCracken and her husband leave the hospital after the disaster, a black cat crosses her path. "You're too late, mate," her husband says.