MADNESS: A BIPOLAR LIFE
By Marya Hornbacher
Houghton Mifflin, 299 pages, $25
Ten years ago, Marya Hornbacher published Wasted: A Memoir of Anorexia and Bulimia. From the cover of the paperback edition, available in the “Recovery” section of your local Barnes & Noble, a 23-year-old Ms. Hornbacher stares out at you, challenging you to reconcile this fairly regular-looking young woman with the subject matter of her book. (But she doesn’t look sick!) And now, on the cover of her new book, Madness: A Bipolar Life, here she is again: older, more grown up, less defiant. She’s recovered—sort of. This time we’re meant to understand that a nice-looking person like Ms. Hornbacher can have bipolar disorder. (But she’s so … normal!)
Her books are a matched set. Like Wasted, Madness offers an unfiltered look at one woman fighting an illness. In Madness, Ms. Hornbacher (who has also published a novel) skips somewhat gaily over her childhood and leaps to her 20s, when she was first diagnosed with Type 1 rapid cycle bipolar disorder. Then, over 250 pages, she drags us here and there, from Minnesota to California to New York to Oregon, as she drinks and fucks and writes her way through young adulthood, careening in and out of hospitals, going on and off her medication. Like her manic depression, her story is a succession of ups and downs; by the end of her book, your head will be spinning.
Most of Madness deals with the decade or so during which Ms. Hornbacher did not have her bipolar disorder under control. A combination of the wrong medication, her lax attitude about taking the medication even when it would help and her abuse of alcohol (which interfered with any medication she did take) kept her on the dramatic bipolar cycle. The portions of her story about the time she spent institutionalized are the most revealing and educational; she’s upfront about the fact that she had electroshock therapy more than once to break an extended manic episode, a last resort that might horrify the casual reader but for which she seems grateful.
Still, this is sometimes a romantic book (as was Wasted); the way Ms. Hornbacher writes about her manic episodes will almost make you jealous. Although she means to convey the “good times” with a wink, she’s clearly loath to let them go; while we’ve all had nights to remember, particular parties or weekends or events that stand out as just being so fun, she enjoyed days upon days—weeks, months—of elation. Describing the summer of 2002 in Minnesota, where she worked on a local magazine, she writes:
“The party breaks up around four o’clock in the morning, and at six I hop out of bed and keep moving. Work has never been better. I’ve never written faster, never worked so hard. It’s fucking great.
“Madness? This isn’t madness. This is more fun than I’ve had in years. Why would I want to come down? This is just how it is now, this is how it’s always supposed to be—I’ve hit my stride, and I just didn’t realize how painfully slow I’d been going before. … Watch this.”
Of course, she crashes—but only after plotting to conquer Minneapolis, then New York (“I’ll write for The New Yorker! No, I’ll become editor of The New York Times.”) From a writer’s perspective, this is one of the most irritating things about Madness: Sure, it’s a book about mental illness, but it’s also a book about writing—and it’s just not that well written.
THERE’S VALUE IN books like Madness and Wasted (and Prozac Nation, Girl, Interrupted, An Unquiet Mind, etc.), but this genre—half memoir, half self-help—can also be abused. Everything is sacrificed to the power of the story; the writing takes a backseat; and what you get is a piling up of details, one on top of the next, all meant to give you an insider’s view of the disordered mind.
Some people, especially young people, might click with Ms. Hornbacher’s manic then-I-did-this-then-I-did-that-whoo-hoo!-I’m-out-of-control-we-laughed-then-I-crashed writing style; others, like me, will find it too untamed and undisciplined, too lazy. It’s impossible not to have goodwill toward and sympathy for Ms. Hornbacher, given her challenges. But it’s also impossible not to wish she’d waited a while longer to write Madness, to get some distance from her most difficult years, to be a little less in the moment and a little more reflective. The book feels like one long manic episode. And when it ends, we’re grateful.
Hillary Frey edits the culture pages of The Observer. She can be reached at email@example.com.