Cracked: Michael Greenberg

Photo: Marion Ettlinger

In depicting his daughter Sally’s first psychotic break, which started on a West Village street back in 1996, when she was 15, Michael Greenberg sought to fill in something “missing in the literature of madness”—namely, its effect on those closest to the sufferer. Hurry Down Sunshine does this and much more, balancing a clear-eyed understanding of an easily diagnosed, chronic disease—in Sally’s case, severe bipolar disorder—with respect for its more mysterious manifestations. He calls his daughter, in the throes of her breakdown, “a rare force of nature, such as a great blizzard or flood: destructive, but in its way astounding too.” Greenberg spoke with Boris Kachka

Sally’s first “crack-up,” as you call it, happened twelve years ago. Did you know at the time you’d write about it?
I wasn’t planning to write something, but I was taking notes. Because I’m a writer, I have a notebook. [It was] the helplessness of waiting around, the dead alleys. You start writing nonsense, and you realize, “This is the glue.”

In the book, you call literature and poetry “the accessories” of Sally’s breakdown. And she says some senseless but profoundly poetic things in the hospital. Did you worry about aestheticizing her illness?
There’s a certain lyricism to psychosis, a tremendous word facility, a speeding up of the mind that eventually becomes fragmented and incoherent but still has flashes of brilliance. There are breakthrough artists who were psychotic. But the idea of a romantic madness that denotes a person of higher sensibility and greater creativity, I don’t buy that. Sally’s a very gifted wordsmith, but she can’t write anything because she can’t stay in it.

Has she read the book?
She said she loved it. She said, “I felt like I was reading about a 15-year-old girl named Sally who was in hell and was the only person who didn’t know it.”

You write about taking “hack” writing assignments. Is this what it took for you to demonstrate your talent?
I had a disappointment with the first novel I wrote, in my twenties, that was bought with great fanfare by a publisher I won’t name, which changed hands, and they decided not to do my book. During that summer [of Sally’s breakdown], I was floundering as a writer. I was taking on hack jobs, I was going to quit writing. I realize now that I was writing without confidence. And then this happened and I felt—yes, I think in the intensity of the experience, this was a breakthrough for me. It is exhilarating to write about something that means a great deal to you.

Sally has made progress but continues to have difficulties. Do you handle setbacks differently now?
I think when crisis strikes, we live in the now. But when life is moving at its natural pace, we are not philosophical; we’re anxious and hungry for what’s next. I am no better at philosophical living than anyone else. What I do have sensitivity about is the fragility of life, of Sally.

Hurry Down Sunshine
Other Press. September 9.

Cracked: Michael Greenberg