Michael Greenberg on His Remarkable Memoir Hurry Down Sunshine
Hurry Down Sunshine: A Memoir
Other Press, $22, 140 pp.
Published September 9
Find the first chapter here.
Michael Greenberg's daughter, Sally, was 15 years old when a severe manic episode landed her in a New York psychiatric facility. In the midst of her breakdown, Sally passed sleepless nights drinking coffee, writing, and annotating Shakespeare. Days were spent wandering Greenwich Village, telling strangers that the whole of human potential was locked up in young children. Once confined to the ward, Sally covered the floor of the isolation room with cryptic phrases written in felt-tip pen. Published twelve years after Sally's first disarming un-gluing, Hurry Down Sunshine is Michael Greenberg's wrenching, elegantly-rendered account of his daughter's first summer on the couch (and on heavy meds). Greenberg, who is a New York-based columnist for the Times Literary Supplement (and who is enjoying positive reviews of his book from the New Yorker, New York, et al) talked to the Voice about the ethics of memoir-writing, Sylvia Plath, and the literature of madness. —Ruth McCann
In Hurry Down Sunshine, you briefly mention going to a writing space and editing a novel that you've written. Is that still in the works?
That novel is buried in a drawer where it belongs. After purging it of all its outsized emotion, I found that it was less enflamed, but bloodless. So it was dead.
Is Hurry Down Sunshine named after the Jack Dupree song?
Now wait a minute, you know what it's named after? It's a song – I think it might be the Jack Dupree song – but I know it as a song that Otis Redding sings. Not Otis Redding… um… shit. Oh you know… that Kansas City singer who was known as a four by four, ‘cause he was about four feet tall, four feet wide. That's terrible. Oh… I'll remember his name. But it goes, "Hurry down sunshine, see what tomorrow brings…" "I'm Going to Chicago" is the name of the song. And it's a song from the deep South about a guy who can't wait for the sun to go down so he can get the hell out of his town and go to Chicago.
I think it's a fantastic song. The reason I took [the title] is because it's wonderful, it's sort of counter-intuitive. In terms of the book, it refers to the scorching, sort of blinding, burning sun of mania. So, hurry down… you know, hurry away mania. It refers to that certain kind of sunshine which is not the sunshine we all bathe in, but rather the sunshine we run from. People always ask me where the title comes from, and I keep having to say, "Well, this song…"
So has your daughter read the book?
Yes! She has. She said, "I love it. I felt like I was reading about a 15-year-old girl named Sally who had gone to hell and was the only one who didn't know it." And I was actually very gratified by that response. I was very nervous about giving it to her, because the furthest thing from my mind was to harm her. But on the other hand it brought back behaviors that she didn't remember, because there's a kind of amnesia that comes with the seizure of a manic attack. A lot of things are retained, but actual behavior and how one is seen are not. And for anyone to read about how they're seen is a certain kind of news we're not used to getting about ourselves.
Speaking of which, how does your family feel about the way you wrote about them? Because you write very honestly about your wife, your ex-wife, your brother, your mother. . .
I'm happy to say that they're all very pleased with it. And none of them asked me to change a word. And they're happy I wrote the book. My ex-wife, Robin, who I expected might object to certain things didn't object at all, so I was very pleased by that.
You know there's always an ethical question with this kind of book, and it's a very valid one. In fact, I stopped writing after I'd written the first 60 or 70 pages. I just decided not to do it. Why? Why expose this? Isn't it a gauche thing to be doing? You know? Why make public what's just best painlessly left unsaid? But I picked it up again – I had reasons to pick it up again and go through it, which I thought sort of overrode those ethical questions. And I try to deal honestly with them, so it worked out okay.
Is that why it was a length of time before you published this book?
That's not really why. I started it about three and a half years ago and then dropped it for a year. And I had notes, because I was a writer, and I was carrying my notebook around, so I had notes from the actual thing, but never with the idea of writing about it, just as something to do while I was in a state of complete despair and waiting in the ward and that kind of thing. But I just didn't feel ready to write about it. I could never see a way to do it or find the right position of myself as the teller of the story, but also as a participant in it. Then it hit me. I think it required distance and time.
Were you writing with a view to connect your style to your subject matter? In the way, I guess, that in The Bell Jar, Sylvia Plath's writing is almost crazy at the points where she's crazy.
The reason I decided to continue with the book was because I realized that this book was missing from the literature of madness – a very great literature of madness. And in fact, the great books about madness (including Sylvia Plath's autobiographical novel) had been written by people who were writing of their own experience of psychosis. The great ones do replicate, by focusing on themselves, the very experience, and so allow the reader to enter into it in a certain way. In my case, I'm an observer. . . And the gap I was attempting to fill with Hurry Down Sunshine is the story from the other shore – the absolute phenomenon, the storm-like feeling of having this come at you, and what it means. Because it's a story of the most severe kind of existential dread, really. And psychosis is a condition of dread and existential uncertainty as great as any known, I think, in the human spectrum. And while I was taking on a lot of Sally, essentially I was trying to also be a kind of Virgil-like guide through it. [The book] tries to enter into her experience from the ouside in an attempt to understand it, while also describing what it did to me. But not only to me – I try to give equal pride of place to the other central people in this book.
I feel like there's a fine line between becoming too detached, but I thought you balanced it beautifully.
That was the great challenge of the book, to me – to walk that line, you know? You don't want to strike that tone of the guy in the bar who's telling you this story about what happened… And you don't want to scare people with a sense of urgency, with a torrential outpouring of emotion. On the other hand, what I wanted to recreate was the drama. It's quite ordinary to become severely ill, unfortunately. To become severely psychotic, however – it's also not completely unextraordinary – but it's an amazingly dramatic thing, and this is how I wanted to treat it: In its moment, in its experiential moment. My challenge was to recreate the experience.