NEW YORK - James Joyce once took his beloved, mentally ill daughter Lucia to see Carl Jung. The famed psychoanalyst compared father and child to two people going to the bottom of a river -- one falling, the other diving.
Michael Greenberg is as close to knowing how Joyce felt as anyone. In July 1996, he watched helplessly as his bright, creative daughter snapped. Overnight, it seemed, 15-year-old Sally went from reading Shakespeare sonnets in their West Village apartment to grabbing strangers on the street and charging into oncoming traffic, delusional beyond reach.
When Sally's mania didn't fade, Greenberg reluctantly checked her into a double-locked psychiatric ward, where drug-dulled patients were "heavy-eyed, out of focus, like smudged photographs of themselves." So begins the summer chronicled in "Hurry Down Sunshine," a memoir that reads more like a page-turner.
Poets Robert Lowell and Sylvia Plath, novelist William Styron and others have vividly described mental disorders in the first person, but Greenberg contributes something new -- the grief of a parent on the sidelines of madness. A gifted writer, he seeks understanding through literary comparisons and wonders how much his psyche has in common with his daughter's. At one point, he even sampled her medication in an effort to understand what she was going through.
Greenberg now lives on Manhattan's Upper West Side with his second wife, choreographer Pat Cremins, and their 10-year-old son. On a recent winter morning, his sparse but comfortably appointed living room was sun-drenched, a weathered baby grand in one corner. Ceiling-high bookshelves bear out his wide-ranging reading interests, from Dante to DeLillo.
Slightly built, with an amiably inquisitive face, Greenberg has a centered demeanor cut by bursts of intensity. His gestures grew animated when he described the "diabolical siren song" of mania that he came to know through Sally.
"In its earliest moments, it's extremely pleasurable, a feeling of charisma, linguistic fluidity, energy, omnipotence. Who among us would turn away from that? You have to be burned quite a few times before you realize the signs -- agitation, grandiosity, no sleeping, paranoia."
Greenberg and Cremins visited the hospital every day, bringing Sally artichokes and chocolates. She fluctuated between incoherence and wild oracular pronouncements, her mind as unruly as her mop of amber curls.
"Pat was a steadying voice of realism," Greenberg said of those days. "I was emotionally buffeted between hope and despair. ... I kept trying to reestablish some point of contact that would show me she was coming back, and every time I failed, it stabbed me. This shell of a person was impersonating my daughter."
Sally's mother, Robin, also visited, curling up on the bed with her. Robin and Michael had been high school sweethearts, married young and divorced when Sally was in first grade. Tired of the city, Robin moved to rural Vermont, where she remarried and became a baker.
"It didn't seem possible we could be responsible for this kind of thing," Greenberg said. "It seemed a force of nature. You're either told it's genetic, which is a kind of blame, or that it's environmental, which is total blame. At least we've advanced since the 1960s, when the mother was always blamed for everything."
His widowed mother also visited, and they discussed Greenberg's brother Steve, diagnosed as a borderline sociopath and incapable of holding a job or maintaining relationships. Every week, Greenberg meets him at a supermarket to buy him groceries. Steve's bleak, lonely existence portends a similar possible future for Sally.
When Sally was well enough to come home, she had to maintain a strict regimen of drugs that made her, she said, "feel like I'm packed in foam rubber." One morning, Greenberg took a full dose himself, and soon felt "neck-deep in a swamp."
"I quickly understood that drugs were not going to save her," he said. "I think it's very difficult and unrewarding for psychiatrists and nursing staff, because there's very little in the way of a cure."
"Hurry Down Sunshine" was not a book that Greenberg intended to write.
"I felt there was something gauche, too revealing, about it," he said. "I wasn't sure I could universalize it. It started as an essay on mental illness, but then I dropped that, and just wrote about the moment, like you would a storm or a shipwreck. All the great writing about mental illness, all the way back to 'King Lear,' was about the experience of being psychotic. So I saw justification in doing something different, that it wouldn't be just exhibitionism."
His teenage years had been unusual in a far different way from his daughter's. The fourth of five sons in a Brooklyn Jewish family, he moved into his own apartment at age 16 and worked nights at a bookstore to pay the rent.
At 19, lured by the Latin American literary boom of the 1960s and early '70s, he and Robin moved to Buenos Aires, where he taught himself to be a reporter. He wrote pieces for the UPI news service and several U.S. publications, including the Boston Globe and Village Voice.
Back in New York by 1975, he supported himself with odd jobs while working on a 700-page novel about two New Jersey brothers. It was bought by a major publisher, but the company changed hands before the book could be published.
After that disappointment, Greenberg worked as a criminal court interpreter and later started a small trucking company. He eventually returned to creative journalism and has been writing "Freelance," an observational lifestyle column, for the London Times Literary Supplement since 2003. A collection of his columns in book form, interspersed with what he calls "graphic interruptions," is coming out in September, about the same time as the paperback version of "Hurry Down Sunshine."
An impact on the family
Sally Greenberg has now had manic depression for 12 years. In his book's postscript, her father summarizes the events in her life since then, including graduation from high school, a short marriage to a former classmate, and work with children and the elderly. Her successes have been interspersed with periods of psychosis and hospitalization. In 2008, she lived in a "therapeutic community" near Robin's home in Vermont, where residents raise their own vegetables and work with animals. She recently graduated to independent living, and got a job with a veterinarian. She and her father talk almost daily.
Her illness has had a strong impact on everyone in the family, he added. Cremins disbanded her modern-dance company four years ago to pursue a graduate degree in social work and infant development. Sally's older brother, Aaron, works in child protection for UNICEF.
In the decade since Sally's hospitalization, societal attitudes toward mental illness have evolved somewhat. But those affected by it still feel alone, Greenberg said.
"We can change the language. We can call it bipolar mental illness or a disorder or a disease. But it's difficult to change the deep-seated fear and suspicion. When someone's depressed, it's their fault, a failure of will. The taboo persists because it's a very lonely thing ... excruciating for the person who's ill and has lost the ability to communicate, but also for the family."
Kristin Tillotson • 612-673-7046