The day my daughter went mad

The story of Sally Greenberg’s mental illness has become a surprise bestseller.


By Madeleine Kingsley, April 2, 2009
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Writer Michael Greenberg in 1992 with his daughter, Sally, aged 11, before she was diagnosed as bi-polar. Below: Sally today, on the road to recovery

Writer Michael Greenberg in 1992 with his daughter, Sally, aged 11, before she was diagnosed as bi-polar. Below: Sally today, on the road to recovery

In 1996, Michael Greenberg’s 15-year-old daughter was, as he puts it, “struck mad”. “All the time Sally was hospitalised I could only sleep in 45 minute catnaps,” he recalls. “My hair went grey that summer.” Doctors diagnosed Sally’s condition as bi-polar 1, but Greenberg, a novelist from New York, expressly uses the word “madness” to describe her condition.

“It is,” he says, “the ancient word, with us since recorded times. I say ‘madness’ because it harkens back and expresses more. There’s a stigma to mental disorder that is not going to go away whatever you call it. It doesn’t reside in the language.” Hurry Down Sunshine, Greenberg’s just-published chronicle of Sally’s crack-up is raw, riveting and perversely beautiful. He had thought it would be difficult to find a publisher, yet this deeply personal story has struck a universal chord — perhaps especially so for the Jewish world, for Greenberg observes that among Ashkenazis there is a slightly higher incidence of schizophrenia and manic depression than in the rest of the population.

Sunshine has been sold to 17 countries, so Greenberg is here on a whistle-stop European tour, briefly in London en route to Sweden, Germany and France. He is fresh from Spain where the book, laying bare a still-taboo topic, has already been given a second print.

Back home in the US, Sunshine was an instant bestseller for the Brooklyn-born boy who attended full-time Hebrew school, but turned down a coveted yeshivah place. “I said that I found God so vengeful that I couldn’t really be Jewish. The rabbi laughed and said: ‘You don’t get out of being Jewish that easily.’”

How does a now-secular Jewish father cope while his while his beloved child is lost in psychosis? Greenberg brought Sally’s silk pyjamas to the closed psychiatric ward and her favourite artichokes, lovingly steamed.

He fielded complaints from the Chasidic family of the patient next door that Sally was disturbing their pious Noah. “Noah’s brother recognised me as a Jew who had, in his eyes, turned away,” he says. “So he tried to save me by inviting me to lay tefillin, though, ironically, we were already both in the same boat. The brother saw Noah’s mania as a religious talent that was not being acknowledged. I viewed Sally’s illness in much the same way, though to me she was some kind of literary genius [Sally was writing poetry and obsessing about Shakespeare]. Each of us assigned to our loved one the thing that was most important to us.”

Long bedside days set Greenberg’s thoughts back to the Bible “which is really”, he smiles wryly, “a series of crises all about neuroses! All those stories told with grand metaphor go straight to the most primitive part of ourselves.

“So I found myself thinking about the Solomon myth, in which he often visits the marketplace in disguise. He wants to reconnect to ordinary people, rather like Obama saying he won’t be stuck in the bubble of the White House. But while King Solomon is away from the palace, a demon doppelganger takes his place and the more Solomon protests his identity, the more he is labelled mad and dismissed as a pariah.”

For Greenberg, this story illustrates the depth of isolation that madness brings. “As a parent your desire is to empathise with psychosis. The hardest thing was to see Sally go away and become a stranger.”

Looking back, Greenberg recognises that Sally was always fragile. “When she was six, a little girl in her grade, Lisa Steinberg, was murdered by her father,” he recalls. “He was a middle-class lawyer, a psychopathic guy who just happened to be Jewish. But because the case was shocking and unusual, it made front pages news for a whole year.

“Sally herself wasn’t sure what was going on, but when a school counsellor opened the door to anyone wanting to talk privately about their feelings, my daughter was the first into the office. She wanted to talk, not about Lisa, but about her own confusions. Never, at the time, would I have thought of this as a symptom of what was to come, but I understood then that she needed special attention.”

To Greenberg, Sally is the family’s sacrifice. “I naturally burn hot by temperament. We are all slightly highly strung, but in a way it’s helped us. But for Sally, inheriting this aspect of our character has been a curse.”

While Sally slept her drugged, deluded sleep on the ward, Greenberg would go home and make notes. He never intended to write about Sally’s breakdown “but it wasn’t as if time diminished the experience”. Eight years later he picked up the dusty notebooks and found lost detail leaping off the page. “I’d recorded what paintings were hanging on the ward, the sharpness of dialogue, what you saw through the ward window… all those things that, lacking the immediacy of the moment, would have been very hard to recreate. I wrote the whole thing in a chaotic first, 800-page draft. I guess this became the book that gave me a radar I’d never had when writing anything before, for what was honest and true. I eventually left out a lot of my emotional response to Sally’s illness. I felt it would be too much for the reader.”

Could it be that Jews are particularly uncomfortable with mental illness? “I think that’s true,” he reflects. “There’s a certain sense that, having the great fortune of not being a victim of the Holocaust, you should really live the life your relatives were denied. You want the fullness, the achievement — there’s a tremendous Jewish drive that connects way back to our being unable to work at certain things or having to work twice as hard.”

Twelve years on, there is a happy ending — of sorts — to the Greenberg story. Inspired by his sister’s experience, Sally’s brother, Aaron, works as a child protection officer for Unicef. Stepmother Pat gave up her choreography career and is now a therapist in early years development.

Greenberg himself feels he has acquired a new compassion, while his book’s success back home has brought the family financial security. He has been able to fund Sally a year on a therapeutic farm in Vermont. She has not totally recovered, but does well between occasional relapses.

“I feel about Sally, a bit as you feel about King Lear, when he has seemingly lost everything at the end of the play. Your first feeling might be pity, but what you really feel is a kind of hushed awe for this person. It’s as if he’s taken on everything that it means to be human.”

Still, he is in no doubt that he would, in a perfect world, wish away Sally’s affliction. “If I could give her life again, without this illness, I would do so in a minute. Sally, however, is all acceptance. She said to me, quite unprovoked: ‘You know, dad, if I could be born again, and not be manic depressive, I don’t think I would do it, because I wouldn’t know how to think about myself. I wouldn’t know who I was.’”

Hurry Down Sunshine is published by Bloomsbury at £12.99

    Last updated: 10:15am, April 2 2009