Just Like Someone Without Mental Illness Only More So by Kurt Vonnegut, M.D.

Mark Vonnegut, son of the late, great Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., has written another memoir about going crazy now and again. (Eden Express was written when the author was in his late twenties, after his earlier breakdown.) Since May is National Mental Health Month and my family history of mental illness is similar to Mark’s, I knew I had to read this book.

Mark’s mind jumps from thought to thought, weaving in and out his mental breakdowns over the last three decades. Now in his early 60s and a practicing pediatrician, the memoir takes us into his mind, both when he calls himself “crazy” and when he is “almost normal.”

I like his honesty, even when it is extremely personal. I also like his wit and his ability to make going crazy a side effect of living in our crazy world.  Vonnegut tells us details about his mother’s  and sister’s mental problems. Both he and his sister compound their problems with alcoholism, and the author takes us down that road as well.

Here is a paragraph about his honest explanation of his illness from page 122:

“With four psychotic breaks to my credit and a solid four-straight- generation family history of hyper-religiosity, voices, delusions, etcetera, I more than met diagnostic criteria for bi-polar disease, formerly known as manic-depression, which was why I was taking lithium….”

This book was a kind of touchstone for me. I see that you can have mental breakdowns and recover to lead a full life, although sometimes beset with hearing voices. But Vonnegut did become a pediatrician, receiving his degree in medicine for Harvard Med School, no small feat for even an “uncrazy” person.

My own bouts with depression scare me, because I always feel that a meltdown is in the wings, unannounced, even though the two major “episodes” were after childbirth (postpartum depression) and while going through menopause and divorce at the same time (which will not happen again, at least not the menopause!) But this book gave me hope that one can survive mental illness and lead a productive life, although somewhat scattered life.

Vonnegut’s memoirs also include stories about his author-famous dad, Kurt Vonnegut and about his mother’s death from cancer and other family issues that give you a fuller picture of the younger Vonnegut’s life, crazy as it may seem.

There are also small photos of Mark Vonnegut’s artwork, which I liked.  His father passed along the gift to him that art (music, poetry, painting, short stories) “was a way out of wherever you were and a way to find out what the hell happens next and not have it be just the same old thing” (p. 192).

This memoir is quick reading, even though the topic is somewhat heavy, because the author has a way of writing that sounds as though he is chatting with you in your living room. It’s very readable.

Right after completing the book, I was reading the lead story in the Arts & Entertainment of the May 8th Philadelphia Inquirer. The Marian Anderson Award was going to Mia Farrow for her humanitarian work African Relief Programs through UNICEF.  In the article, the writer, Carrie Rickie discusses how much Farrow does, given the number of children she has birthed (4) and adopted (11). She (Farrow) jokingly says that “she does what she does because ‘my OCD focuses my ADD.’” Don’t we all have our mental issues?

I think we are all a bit crazy in this fast-paced, terrorist-fear ridden world that has shrunk to the size of a cell phone and expanded because of sites such as Facebook. According to Vonnegut, “There are no people anywhere who don’t have some kind of mental illness. It all depends on where you set the bar and how hard you look.  What is a myth is that we are mostly mentally well most of the time.”

That’s good too know. Now I can be a little bit crazy and know I am in good company!

3 thoughts on “Just Like Someone Without Mental Illness Only More So by Kurt Vonnegut, M.D.

  1. I’m definitely in the sometimes crazy group! I love your “poetry” re our world shrinking to the size of a cell phone and expanding into cyberspace because of Facebook

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