Sunday, October 18, 2015

All the Things We Never Knew by Sheila Hamilton (memoir, mental health)

First published in the NY Journal of Books
October 18, 2015

Chasing the Chaos of Mental Illness
Review by Amy Henry

Sheila Hamilton and her daughter Sophie suffered unimaginably and yet found their way to wholeness again. Both were entirely upended by the behavior and suicide of their husband and father, David. What they endured is unspeakable. Not having a safe base for living in an already conflicted world truly tests the human spirit.
Not only did David commit suicide, there was a protracted hunt for his body after he left the city behind with his intentions fairly clear to those who knew him. It was winter, and his family couldn’t help but imagine him out in the cold, alone. Eventually he was found, and it was said he finally discovered his peace after he killed himself; however, that peace wasn’t extant for his wife and daughter: Not only did he not leave a note, but he left them heavily in debt.
This family deserves empathy and understanding, but parts of this memoir are very difficult to understand. Not to underestimate someone’s pain, but questions arise as to the premise of the book and the idea that he was dead “within six weeks of a formal diagnosis of bipolar disorder.” Formal is the key word here, because it’s clear from the onset that David was suffering from a mental disorder for a very long time.
It’s important to note that Sheila Hamilton is a noted radio and TV personality in the Portland area, highly successful in a cutthroat business. From childhood to the height of her career, she was successful precisely because she knew people and reflected a sweet and happy personality that her fans found relatable. She is a smart cookie.
Therefore, reading her describe her courtship and early marriage to David is terribly confusing. From their initial meeting at a coffee shop, David seemed too good to be true. He had some quirks, which is something all of us have to own up to. But their relationship was fraught with periods of unusual behavior on his part. Long disappearances, secretiveness, and constant personal disorganization despite a successful business were troubling events. Interactions with his own father were not of the warm and fuzzy nature.
It wasn’t long before he was cheating on her (she found out) and even taking his child on his rendezvous with women. Asking one of the child-care providers on a date was less than shocking. He had a penchant for escapism. At times, as well, he would become extremely irate and irrational over the noise of cars on a distant street. It’s clear he was troubled, and reading it makes you wonder why his family did not seek help sooner. 
This is why the premise of his sickness being discovered “only six weeks” before his death is inaccurate: His family was enduring his pain along with him for much longer. Years. This presentation adds a certain scare tactic to the memoir, as it asks readers to consider mental issues as something that can come on rapidly, without warning. Yet the details shared are themselves revealing as to how long he suffered and how some forms of intervention may have helped. 
Hamilton is from a large family in Utah, and has no doubt spent time with hundreds of friends, coworkers, and acquaintances in her life. She had to know what rational behavior was and what wasn’t. How could Hamilton, given her knowledge of people, not see it? She cannot be blamed in any way, of course, as David was the one who was sick and put her through countless incidents of infidelity and pain. Was it the stigma of mental health problems that made it difficult to broach the subject or was she in denial, given his tremendous talent and charm?
Sheila Hamilton -Portland's pride
She clearly had a close relationship with her daughter and was able to provide stability and certain life luxuries that may have made it easier for Sophie to endure what may have seemed odd in her young mind. Perhaps focusing on Sophie helped Hamilton avoid the more painful thoughts of David and her helplessness in dealing with him.
In any case, Hamilton ends most of the chapters with an informative page on mental health statistics and traits so that readers may see what she didn’t. One of them, entitled “The Escape Theory of Suicide” is especially interesting. In it, one psychologist noted that “most people who kill themselves actually lived better-than-average lives” but created “unreasonable standards for happiness.” This statistic is prefaced with the shocking detail that men commit four out of every five suicides in the U.S.
The memoir ends with numerous resources for those with questions to investigate. The array of organizations designed to help different sorts of people with varying sorts of mental health issues is a positive step in helping to decrease the horrific statistics. Hamilton is a brave woman to come forward with her story and potentially help other families.
Special thanks to Seal Press for the Review Copy. 
 If someone you know is suffering from behavior you may think is troubling, contact your local mental health resources or,, or  Each provides an easy anonymous means to get help and have questions answered.  Also, never forget the power of meeting with a regular family physician to rule out medical problems. Pursue any means to get help for your loved ones before it is too late.  Don't let the stigma or embarrassment hold you back.

Monday, October 12, 2015

Quicksand by Steve Toltz (fiction)

First Published in the New York Journal of Books
October 12, 2015

He’s the last person you’d want to sit by on a bus. As a brother-in-law, he’d probably make you poke forks in your eyes at the family picnic. Probably the most self-absorbed and offensive character you’ll meet…so, why is he so appealing?

This is Aldo and he’s the gyre this novel seems to revolve around, dizzy and disjointed in a way filled with seriously witty lines and repellent acts. Aldo and Liam are long-time friends who’ve grown into adults left with little to take pride in, and a history of disappointment. Having both lost sisters to early deaths, they share a bond that makes you think that you’re headed for a poignant tale of friendship. Poignant, yes.  Wildly unpredictable?  That too.

At times it appears that the purpose of Aldo is a mirror to discover the nature of Liam, a fascinating character on his own. Liam is a writer who is so interested in authenticity for his characters that he attends the police academy to research police procedure. When his novel dies soon after, he ends up becoming a policeman to make his living. The irony of painful reality versus dreams.
research can be dangerous

When the story begins Aldo is in a wheelchair, and the two are bored in a bar in Australia. Regret swarms them. Liam’s police uniform chafes him mentally, and Aldo is bent on offending everyone. Liam decides that Aldo is his lost muse, and decides to return to writing: “to write about you is to troubleshoot the human spirit.”

For Aldo, a middle-class kid who is not graced with any advantages, life is a brutal game of catch-as-catch-can. Early in his teens he’s falsely accused of rape, and it alters his personality forever.  “Always democratic in his alliances, now he became friends with everybody…It was as if by surrounding himself with people, he was building airtight alibis for every minute he passed on earth.” His personality becomes a jarring combination of moral superiority and immoral and illegal business practices. Fond of himself, he assumes others loathe him.

Schemes abound, such as his idea to start a B&B&B (Brothel, Bed & Breakfast), as well as developing restaurants and films. Without much forethought, he reels in investors but delivers nothing. He becomes a legend in their region, a loser that seems to have a group of successful acquaintances who help bail him out, enabling him to continue to delude himself, when they aren’t beating him up. And there’s always Liam to come to the rescue.

But in his misery and joblessness, he has all the great lines. Of a stiff-mannered sketch artist, he said “he looked like he would have to be loved intravenously”. Of himself, he says he is “a sleeper angel waiting to be activated”. His acerbic presence in the first half of the novel is delightful.

Here’s where the narrative gets complicated. In a completely non-linear way, tossing most conventions aside, Toltz gets experimental. We are forced into leaving the storytelling for a long-winded section about Aldo’s fate. He’s facing trial and we have yet to understand what caused his disability. 

When he was a wise-ass blowhard with intriguing thoughts and observations, he was a sympathetic character. We liked him more than he liked himself (which was a lot!). His efforts to get the upper hand on his body are epic: he attempts surfing even if it means dragging his paralyzed body across the sand. But once the trial begins, and he’s given free rein to explain his life in his own voice (up to now we’ve had Liam narrating), he is simply a blowhard. 
Aldo's secret beach?

He tells astonishing stories and it’s clear that madness is a factor weighing into the outcome. Scenes in court seem like hallucinations. His reality is one of a hypnotic attraction to desperate women, suicidal (yet considerate) people, and a host of other repellent and obnoxious images.

Awkward dialogue take the place of much needed exposition and it becomes a confusing tangle of allegations, and the introspective ravings of a bore. This section, “The Madness of the Muse”, lives up to its title.

All said, the novel features tremendous wit and a juicy repartee with the two men. Liam is intriguing as a foil to Aldo: a straight man to his comedy.  By the conclusion, seeing that Aldo’s long-term influence on Liam actually makes Liam a better man is an irresistible concept.
This is not Aldo.  It's author Steve Toltz.

In the final pages, Aldo asks Liam about that book he was writing. Liam’s response: “It’s been hard...Really hard. I mean, I’ve been working around the clock to get down an accurate cross-section of your traumas, but it’s difficult to make an underdeveloped person into a well-rounded character. I think I’ve accurately depicted how you’re critical of others yet despairing of your own unceasing self-regard, and how you don’t think so much as secrete thought…The thing is, I want to make you real. Tangible.”

Review copy courtesy of Simon and Schuster. 
Released 9/15/15.