Jul 10

“Notes on a Banana”: Bipolar Disorder and More

In his masterful new memoir, David Leite weaves together three of my favorite things: food, humor, and debilitating mental illness. Notes on a Banana is beautifully crafted, inspiring, and poignantly honest. A must read for all foodies and memoir lovers who know the power food and family have to overcome nearly every obstacle in life. Josh Kilmer-Purcell

In Notes on a Banana: A Memoir of Food, Love, and Manic Depression the “Banana” in question is Leite’s nickname, the “Food” a significant part of his career, the “Love” his long-term relationship with “The One”—otherwise known as Alan—and the “Manic Depression” his symptoms of bipolar disorder that surfaced in childhood and didn’t stabilize until his late 30’s or so. Leite is now in his 50’s.

B. David Zarley, Paste, praises Notes on a Banana as “one of the finest portraits of bipolar disorder I have ever read.” He speaks from the experience, like Leite, of living with hypomania, and he states the following about Leite’s diagnosis:

Bipolar II, to be specific, the form of the disorder marked by deep depressive modes and hypomanic episodes (hypomania being, as Leite describes it, ‘a watercolor version of bright-neon manias’). It is the alternating currents of depression and hypomania that have galvanized and rendered black Leite’s life, a perpetual rolling brownout.

Leite also once had signficant difficulty accepting being gay. Kirkus Reviews:

In college, the author had affairs with men while ‘dating’ a woman he fantasized would be his wife but with whom he could never have sex. He also began experiencing the chaotic extremes of the bipolar disorder that psychologists had mistakenly diagnosed as depression. Leaving college without a degree, Leite went to New York, where he worked first as a waiter then as an ad writer while unsuccessfully trying to turn straight through involvement with the ‘gay curing’ Aesthetic Realism movement. A long-term relationship with a man who ‘loved everything about the ceremony of the table’ led to Leite’s reimmersion in the cooking he loved and the Azorean culture from which he had separated himself. It also gave him the courage to seek the answers that had eluded him and his doctors about the truth of his condition.

In addition to the medications and therapy Leite now uses, he’s described other parts of his “bipolar arsenal” (his blog) :

…Things no shrink can prescribe and no therapist can analyze—namely, cooking and writing about food. Even on my worst days, when it feels like I have some gargantuan creature threatening to drag me down through the couch cushions, the simple act of swirling a knob of butter in a hot skillet can cheer me. And nothing mercifully bitch-slaps depression for a few hours like the utterly frustrating and highly improbable act of stringing together words, like pearls on a necklace, and turning those words into stories.

Selected Reviews of Notes on a Banana

Publishers Weekly:

He expertly walks the line between sad and funny, making himself the clown and hero of this coming-of-age tale. His firsthand account of mental illness pulls no punches, serving up an honest and open perspective on personal and family issues that are often swept under the rug. Despite Leite playing the leading man, the true stars of the memoir are Leite’s parents, who mirror his passion (his mother) and thoughtfulness (his father) and allow Leite to continually draw the focus of the story back to family and food, love and learning.

Drew Ramsey, MD: “Born into a devout immigrant community that didn’t believe in psychiatry or being gay, Leite fought for twenty-five years to understand the truth about himself–his triumph is rich with lessons for us all.”

Marya Hornbacher, author of Madness: A Bipolar Life: “In hilarious, deeply honest prose, Leite has brilliantly captured the light and dark of bipolar disorder. But this book does so much more. It explores the relationships between culture and family, friendship and food, love and the body. A memoir about the astonishing resilience of the human heart.”

Nov 23

“Louder Than Bombs”: Deception in Grief

Louder Than Bombs is interested in the intersection between grief and memory, and how difficult it is to capture both either through photography or film. Brian Tallerico, rogerebert.com

Looking for an intense dysfunctional-family drama over your Thanksgiving break? I mean, besides at home? David Rooney, Hollywood Reporter, sets up the plot of Joachim Trier‘s 2015 Louder Than Bombs, seemingly overlooked in theaters but now available on DVD:

Three years after the death of celebrated war photographer Isabelle Reed (Isabelle Huppert), a major exhibition is being planned and her longtime colleague Richard (David Strathairn) is writing a New York Times feature pegged to the opening. We learn via a quick montage of award speeches, interviews and news reports that Isabelle did her best work by remaining in conflict zones after the tanks pulled out, in order to capture the consequences of war. It’s also revealed that she died not in the field but shortly after retiring, in a road accident just a few miles from her home in Nyack, New York.

Richard respectfully informs Isabelle’s widower, Gene (Gabriel Byrne), that he intends to reveal the full circumstances of her death in the profile; it’s believed that she drove deliberately into an oncoming truck. Gene asks for time to tell his withdrawn youngest son Conrad (Devin Druid), who was just 12 when his mother died and has been spared any knowledge of her apparent suicide. Conrad’s older brother Jonah (Jesse Eisenberg) takes a break from his wife, his new baby and his college professor job to come sort through Isabelle’s studio for material from her final trip to Syria to be included in the show.

Jesse Cataldo, Slant: “…(D)espite its status as the emotional and narrative center of the film, the exact nature of Isabelle’s death is never clarified. Possible scenarios are glimpsed via the daydreams of one character, and discussed obliquely by others, but precise explanations are avoided.”

The trailer:

Themes and Meaning

Bilge Ebiri, Village Voice: “A fractured film about a fractured family, Louder Than Bombs takes a potentially tired premise and reshapes it before our eyes…a story of parents and children in which we’re pulled by the currents and countercurrents of desperation, depression, and love.”

Sasha Stone, The Wrap: “…(W)hat are we obligated to tell our loved ones? What are we obligated to tell our wives to prevent their getting hurt by the things we do? What are the benefits of deception? What is the eventual harm?”

Oliver Lyttelton, The Playlist: “None of these characters are being entirely truthful to each other, or to those in their orbit. The three Reed men talk (or in Conrad’s case, don’t), but are incapable of communication, and their grief remains in stasis as a result.”

Selected Reviews

Michael O’Sullivan, Washington Post: “Along with his regular co-writer Eskil Vogt, Trier has crafted a profoundly beautiful and strange meditation on secrets, lies, dreams, memories and misunderstanding.”

Michael Rose, Huffington Post: “Some might fault Trier for tackling subjects about people who appear to have it all. In ‘Louder Than Bombs,’ the angst of the upper middle class becomes universal as Trier takes us into their struggle to find what it takes to hold a family together.”

Guy Lodge, Time Out :

This is the stuff of unapologetic melodrama, artfully structured in such a way that the rotating stories inform and enhance each other even when only one character is in focus: absence is a presence, and that doesn’t refer only to the missing mother in the family. Yet the emotional conclusions here can be a little pat, and catharsis too easily come by. It’s more cautiously sound-proofed than its title implies. Only when Huppert’s on screen does the film feel it could detonate at any moment.

May 18

“Imagine Me Gone”: Mental Illness In the Family

Adam Haslett‘s new novel Imagine Me Gone echoes a main theme from his highly acclaimed 2002 debut, You Are Not a Stranger Here: mental illness and its effects on loved ones.

As Haslett tells Scott Simon, NPR, there’s personal background to go with this: “…I’m no stranger to mental illness. You know, my father committed suicide when I was 14. My brother indeed suffered from anxiety. And I’ve been no stranger to those states myself, luckily, for some unknown reason, not in the same severity of my father or brother.”

Kirkus Reviews introduces Imagine Me Gone: “This touching chronicle of love and pain traces half a century in a family of five, from the parents’ engagement in 1963 through a father’s and son’s psychological torments and a final crisis…Each chapter is told by one of the family’s five voices, shifting the point of view on shared troubles, showing how they grow away from one another without losing touch.”

More info from Heller McAlpin, NPR, about the five family members:

…a British-American couple, John and Margaret, and their three grown children. We learn early that Margaret chose to proceed with her marriage to John even after unexpectedly learning about his history of severe depression during their engagement. We also learn that their eldest son, Michael, manifested a ‘ceaseless brain’ and obsession with the plight of slaves even as a child, while their daughter Celia began showing mature coping skills at an early age. Celia recalls the time her father cut the engine and played dead on a small boat in Maine, testing her and her younger brother Alec with the challenge, ‘Imagine me gone, imagine it’s just the two of you. What do you do?’ Celia kept her cool and reassured her panicked brother to regard it ‘like a safety drill at school.’

Celia becomes a social worker, Alec “a bossily opinionated gay man” (WSJ), but in the center of family turmoil is Michael. The following is an oft-cited quote from the book about Michael’s high anxiety, for which many different medications are tried:

What do you fear when you fear everything? Time passing and not passing. Death and life. I could say my lungs never filled with enough air no matter how many puffs of my inhaler I took or that my thoughts moved too quickly to complete, severed by perpetual vigilance. But even to say this would abet the lie that terror can be described when anyone who’s ever known it knows that it has no components but is instead everywhere inside you all the time until you can recognize yourself only by the tensions that string one minute to the next. And yet I keep lying by describing because how else can I avoid this second and the one after it? This being in the condition itself, the relentless need to escape a moment that never ends.

Jessica Winter, BookForum: “…Michael is…a figure at once half-deranged and brilliant, stymied and restless, utterly self-absorbed and yet pseudo-empathetic to the point of pathology…Imagine Me Gone confronts the moment when the motion finally stops, when the mind’s wheels spin and squeal against the skull until a person breaks apart, his family looking on helplessly, haunting him and haunted by him.”

Despite the seriousness of Haslett’s material, apparently there’s also no shortage of humor.

Select Reviews

Alexis Burling, San Francisco Chronicle: “Haslett hits the nail on the head when it comes to describing just how anguishing and time-consuming psychiatric disorders can be, not only for the afflicted but also for the flailing loved ones trying their damnedest-and failing-to find a suitable fix…”

Michael Upchurch, Boston Globe: “…Imagine Me Gone respects the mystery of how things happen the way they happen, while brilliantly conjuring the tide-like pull with which dreaded possibilities become harsh inevitability.”

Paul Harding, author: “The eldest son, Michael, is simply one of the finest characters I’ve ever come across in fiction. This beautiful, tragic novel will haunt you for the rest of your life and you will be all the more human for it.”

Jan 13

“All the Things We Never Knew”: The Impact of Suicide

This book is for every caregiver who wanders onto Google in the middle of the night typing, ‘depression,’ ‘bipolar,’ or ‘suicide.’ It is for every family member or friend of one of the estimated 41,000 Americans who take their lives every year. Sheila Hamilton, author of All the Things We Never Knew

The husband of Sheila Hamilton, a well known radio talk show host, was diagnosed with bipolar disorder only six weeks before he took his own life. All the Things We Never Knew: Chasing the Chaos of Mental Illness is Hamilton’s new book—part memoir and part guidebook for those in need of help and support.

Kirkus Reviews summarizes the unraveling:

Just as she found the courage to finally seek a divorce, David’s condition worsened, and he was hospitalized. But medications only seemed to compound her husband’s problems, and his newly diagnosed bipolar disorder caused him to deteriorate rapidly. During this period, Hamilton learned that David was hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt and that a divorce from him would cost her everything she had worked for. Before she could take further action, however, David committed suicide, leaving both his wife and child ‘without so much as a note to understand his decision.’

“Mental Illness often masks itself as selfish, anti-social behavior. It waxes and wanes, especially in higher functioning people,” Hamilton writes (Huffington Post).

She has held herself partially responsible for overlooking some things or for not seeing enough of what was truly happening, and this has been part of her grief process. “I’d propose one more stage of grief to Kubler-Ross’s list in the case of suicide; forgiveness…In accepting responsibility for my part in David’s death, I was able to understand his sense of futility, the level of his psychic pain, and his unwillingness to face his illness. I forgave him. I forgave myself. And in doing so, I’ve been better able to understand his decision.”

What about the role of our medical and mental health systems? In an interview with Hamilton (Good Men Project), Jesse Kornbluth raises a pressing question:

…Patients with depressive and manic depressive illness are more likely to commit suicide than patients in any other medical or psychiatric risk group — their mortality rate is higher than it is for most types of heart disease and cancer. More people die of suicide than car accidents. Given that, why do doctors downplay the dangers of these mental illnesses?

The gist of Hamilton’s response: “It may simply be a result of not paying enough attention to the failures. There’s very little tracking of the short- or long-term outcomes of people treated in most of America’s psychiatric centers. There’s very little accountability, or learning from the losses.”

Some of the lessons she wants to impart to any individual who’s struggling:

I would tell that person that recovery is possible. I would also say that if he or she feels stuck in a relationship with a psychiatrist or psychologist who doesn’t believe in the tenets of recovery, they should find a new team of doctors, and would encourage the person to find a team that looks beyond the pharmaceutical approach to healing. For the last decade, the psychiatric profession has relied far too heavily on drugs, while most other industrialized nations are looking at a more holistic approach.

Selected Reviews of All the Things We Never Knew

Kirkus Reviews: “Hamilton’s story is unsettling, but the heart and grit she displays in successfully moving beyond tragedy and learning to live with such chilling uncertainties as whether or not her daughter would also develop bipolar disorder make the book a worthwhile—if at times difficult—read.”

Cheryl Strayed, author: “a boldly beautiful page-turner about loving and losing someone with mental illness. With unblinking honesty and profound compassion, Sheila Hamilton brings us vividly into her confusion, sorrow, and ultimate healing. I’ll be recommending this absorbing memoir for years to come.”

Kevin Hines, mental health speaker and activist: “…one of the most candid, heart-wrenching, and deeply moving accounts of the wake of destruction caused by the suicide of a loved one. Her book reminds us of those we’ve lost to suicide. The book casts the dark shadow that is depression, then rises from such darkness, reminding us to ‘Look to the living, love them, and hold on.’ Finally, it gives survivors tremendous resolve to continue in their quest for prevention.”

Sep 23

“Furiously Happy” By Jenny Lawson: Seriocomically “Crazy”

I came up with the concept of being “furiously happy” years ago after the death of a friend came on the heels of a depression. I was so tired of being sad and feeling hopeless that I went to my next emotion and that was anger. I was mad that life had thrown so much crap at me all at once, so I decided to be furiously happy. Vehemently joyous. To do everything I could when I was out of a depression to enjoy life, even if it was just out of pure spite at the universe. Jenny Lawson, interviewed by Nora Krug, Washington Post

Jenny Lawson, otherwise known as “The Bloggess,” has made a name for herself via her candid and humorous and “crazy” writing. In addition to her social media presence, there’s been her bestselling Let’s Pretend This Never Happened: A Mostly True Memoir (2012). Her readings for it were “standing room only, with fans lining up to have Jenny sign their bottles of Xanax or Prozac as often as they were to have her sign their books” (website For the Love of Words).

Because, you see, she makes no bones about having a myriad of mental health issues.

And now there’s her follow-up memoir, Furiously Happy. More on that in a bit.

Some quotes from her Let’s Pretend This Never Happened will give you a sense of her perspective:

I can finally see that all the terrible parts of my life, the embarrassing parts, the incidents I wanted to pretend never happened, and the things that make me “weird” and “different,” were actually the most important parts of my life. They were the parts that made me ME.

I’m lucky that although [my spouse] Victor doesn’t understand it, he tries to understand, telling me, “Relax. There’s absolutely nothing to panic about.” I smile gratefully at him and pretend that’s all I needed to hear and that this is just a silly phase that will pass one day. I know there’s nothing to panic about. And that’s exactly what makes it so much worse.

It’s been my experience that people always assume that generalized anxiety disorder is preferable to social anxiety disorder, because it sounds more vague and unthreatening, but those people are totally wrong. For me, having generalized anxiety disorder is basically like having all of the other anxiety disorders smooshed into one. Even the ones that aren’t recognized by modern science. Things like birds-will-probably-smother-me-in-my-sleep anxiety disorder and I-keep-crackers-in-my-pocket-in-case-I-get-trapped-in-an-elevator anxiety disorder. Basically I’m just generally anxious about f***ing everything. In fact, I suspect that’s how they came up with the name.

What the author now says in Furiously Happy about her multiple diagnoses:

According to the many shrinks I’ve seen in the last two decades I am a high-functioning depressive with severe anxiety disorder, mild bipolar tendencies, moderate clinical depression, mild self-harm issues, impulse control disorder, and occasional depersonalization disorder. Also, sprinkled in like paprika over a mentally unbalanced devil egg, are mild OCD and trichotillomania, which is always nice to end on, because whenever people hear the word ‘mania’ they automatically back off and give you space on crowded airplanes. Probably because you’re not supposed to talk about having manias when you’re on a crowded airplane. This is one of the reasons why my husband hates to fly with me. The other reason is I often fly with taxidermied creatures and anxiety service animals. We don’t travel a lot together because he doesn’t understand awesomeness.

By the way, among the various things she writes about in Furiously Happy, according to her website, are “completely inappropriate things I’ve blurted out to fill awkward silences at my psychiatrist’s office.”

Selected Reviews

Augusten Burroughs, author: “Even when I was funny, I wasn’t this funny.”

Parade: “Take one part David Sedaris and two parts Chelsea Handler and you’ll have some inkling of the cockeyed humor of Jenny Lawson…[She] flaunts the sort of fearless comedic chops that will make you spurt Diet Coke through your nose.”

Brené Brown, PhD, LMSW: “You’ll laugh, wince, writhe in discomfort, cry, then laugh again. You might even feel the need to buy a raccoon. But the two things you’ll never do is doubt Jenny’s brilliance or her fearlessness when it comes to having honest discussions about mental illness, shame, and the power of human resilience. She’s changing the conversation one rented sloth at a time.”