Home is where the heartbreak is
MEMOIR: Circles Around the Sun: In Search of a Lost Brother, By Molly McCloskey, Penguin Ireland, 233pp. £14.99
EARLY ON in this brilliant, at times heartbreaking book, Molly McCloskey tells how she first tried to tell its story of her brother Mike as a novel. But, trusting in Tolstoy’s assertion that every family is unhappy in its own inimitable way, she ended up crafting instead a remarkably courageous memoir that is as strange and rich as any fiction.
In 1973, when Molly was nine, Mike, the eldest of her five siblings, was diagnosed as schizophrenic at the age of 23. A model high-school student and star basketball player, Mike entered Duke University, in North Carolina, in the autumn of 1968, and it was there that his life gradually began to slip off the rails. Basketball, which had offered his reserved and slightly aloof self a form of group identity, was the first casualty, as by the end of his freshman year he realised he wasn’t good enough for the college game.
The late 1960s were also a tumultuous time in the US, where opposition to the Vietnam War and widespread racial discord were part of the convulsive social changes that, together with illicit drugs, put paid to the staid 1950s. By 1971, Mike, now a long-haired hippy in his third year of university, was availing of a psychotropic cornucopia, smoking and ingesting everything from grass and hash to acid, magic mushrooms and morning-glory seeds. It was also in this year that those close to him, some more than others, began to note changes in his behaviour and personality.
Home, as Robert Frost famously observed, is where they have to take you in, and home is where Mike landed in the spring of 1973, literally barking mad, like a dog in the kitchen, after months of wandering, Kerouac-like, across the US. He was seen that same weekend, in the cruelly ironic way life has, by a long-haired, love-beaded psychiatrist his parents happened to know, who immediately diagnosed Mike as schizophrenic (“this ugly word, the word that will from this day forth define and describe and circumscribe their son”). And home is where he intermittently stayed over the next several years, between hospitalisations and further aimless drifting.
It was in these same years that Mike and Molly’s parents’ marriage fell apart, leaving Nita, their mother, to look after Mike, 11-year-old Molly and her 13-year-old brother, Tim, while worrying, as any mother would, if his diagnosis were down to something she had done in raising him.
McCloskey is particularly good on her parents’ storybook romance, after their meeting on the boardwalk of Ocean City, New Jersey, and the seemingly halcyon early years of their marriage. These times saw them profiled in a cover story of Ladies’ Home Journalas a typical, can-do 1950s American couple, the wife happily industrious at home while her husband was out at work – in Jack McCloskey’s case as a high-flying college basketball coach.
It is Nita, somehow managing to hold on to a quotient of happiness amid the sorrows of her offspring, who emerges as the subtly sung hero of this remarkable family tale.
Having scant memory of her brother’s younger, healthier self and little understanding of his illness during her pre-teen and adolescent years, McCloskey has crafted her story as a kind of reclamation project. It is a determined reconstruction of her brother’s life and loss, drawing on an archive of 40 years of family letters that her mother gave her, as if memoir itself were a kind of recovered memory. But it is also much, much more, for McCloskey candidly examines not only her brother’s illness and its impact on her family, but also her own at times near-desperate struggle with anxiety and alcohol.
What makes the story, however, is the incisive writing that has previously distinguished McCloskey’s nonfiction, as well as her one novel and two collections of stories. A mistress of metaphor – she describes a trembling hand as “independent of my commands, like a still-fighting fish on the end of a line” – she is also master of a nonshowy, syntactically simple prose that cuts like a knife, whether depicting the New Jersey summer of 1981, when she began to drink too much, or the Kosovo countryside in 2005, with its surreally garish petrol stations on back roads that “looked like the sites of unspeakable deeds”, as if refracting her own acute anxiety at the time.
Mining what she calls “the dramaturgy of my family”, McCloskey moves almost seamlessly back and forth from her brother Mike, resident in an assisted-living home in Oregon since 1978, to her parents, other siblings and herself. Among other things, she tells of her fear of going mad while growing up, and how, by her late 20s, she worried that her chronic anxiety and alcohol use were in fact symptomatic of a greater mental debility. Enlisting the likes of Kierkegaard, Sartre and Voltaire to help inform her tale, she also salutes William James’s understanding of alcoholism as, in her own words, “a manifestation of the yearning for more, a misguided attempt to fill the void”.
McCloskey herself gave up the drink in 1996, after a late-September lost weekend in Sligo, which she describes in a majestic, loving valediction, “the early evening sun streaming in the window and all the food and drink and friends I would ever need”. Definitively clear since then about herself and alcohol, she steadfastly declines to draw any such conclusions about her brother Mike’s condition, unlike her father, a second World War veteran, who sees his eldest son’s illness as the straightforward result of the drugs he took during a storied era that laid waste to the prevailing simpler story of a happier, patriotic postwar US.
If, as the memoirist Nuala O’Faolain suggested, “there is no closing of the account with parents”, the same likely holds true for family too. That said, Circles Around the Sunis an extraordinary accounting of singular sorrows and no uncertain triumphs that should resonate for any reader with a family of their own.
Anthony Glavin is a novelist, short-story writer and editor.