As a memoir and creative nonfiction writer, it’s no surprise memoirs are my favorite books to read. I think the greatest test of a memoir is knowing the big surprise and still wanting to read the book. Unlike other books, we know what happens going in. We don’t read to know what happens, but how the writer processed what happened.
In reading The Art of Misdiagnosis: Surviving My Mother’s Suicide, by Gayle Brandeis, it is no surprise that story centers around her mom’s disappearance and suicide just a few days after she gave birth to her son. The subtitle gives that plot point away and the book begins with Brandeis’ blunt “After my mom hangs herself, I become Nancy Drew.”
But from there the story doesn’t follow the usual progression. We might expect Brandeis to simply look back for clues about why her mother killed herself, perhaps blame herself, and wonder what it means for her newborn. But the book is a combination of much more.
Brandeis weaves the troubled time leading up to the moment we know is coming with letters she is writing to her mom, following her mother’s death. Also, we see snippets of the script of The Art of Misdiagnosis, from which the book takes its title. It was the documentary her mother had been working on. The documentary chronicled the diseases her mother thought plagued her family – porphyria and Ehlers-Danlos syndrome. We also see Brandeis’ past illnesses and experiences with being “the sick one”, which were both real and made up.
As her mother’s mental illness progressed and I read the troubling interactions between the two near the end of Brandeis’ pregnancy and even as I knew what would ultimately happen with her mother, I felt myself pulled into the story emotionally. I almost forgot what was coming, wondering with Brandeis, and perhaps wanting to suspend belief about what would happen to her mother.
We don’t read to know what happens, but how the writer processed what happened.
Like anyone who loves someone with a mental illness, Brandeis struggled with creating boundaries with her mother, yet wanting to be there for her. Near the end of the book she talks about the many pursuits that had kept her mom’s interest over the years and how she and her sister had always wanted to believe that things would turn out okay. She writes of her mother getting involved in Kabalah, “This is it, we thought. She’s better now. She found the cure. How easily we fooled ourselves.”
I also found the information about Brandeis’ early illnesses interesting. She was sick with gastrointestinal issues as a child and secretly prolonged her illness because being “The Sick Girl” and the mother of “The Sick Girl” were central to her and her mother’s identity. I too have been the sick one and know how sometimes even the wrong attention can feel so right.
As the youngest of a family of nine I often used sickness as a way to get attention until I finally realized that we are all much more than our weaknesses. I did so by after re-evaluating my brain tumor in light of my father’s disabling stroke. This is the subject of my own memoir, so it was interesting to read another’s writer’s take on it.
In researching how they might have helped treat her mother’s delusions that others are out to get her, Brandeis finds comparisons between her mother’s delusions and her own hypochondria, “people with delusional disorder share similar traits with hypochondriac, in that, “both selectively attend to available information. …They make conclusions based on insufficient information, attribute negative events to external personal causes, and have difficulty in encouraging other’s intentions and motivations.”
The book is complex and does not search for easy answers. But it is truthful to the experience of mental illness and to a daughter trying to understand the suicide of her mother. In writing this, she’s done what good memoirs do and made the personal more universal.