There are three groups of people in the world: those you know intimately, those you don’t know at all, and those you know a bit. In other words: closest family and dearest friends, complete strangers, and coworkers, classmates and other assorted acquaintances. Of the three, I contend that the ones you should never read gut-spilling, autobiographical tell-all books about are the last.
A genuine best friend or loved one with whom you share a special bond is unlikely to reveal anything you don’t already know. In fact, there’s a high probability you will feature in part, or all, of the book. That may get a little embarrassing at points, but overall, the shock factor should be minimal.
At the other end of the spectrum, a complete stranger’s raunchy autobiography is enjoyable precisely because of the shock factor. With no personal skin in the game, the shear titillation of the gobsmacking revelations is unrivaled. Be it shocking depravity or pure schadenfreude, immersing oneself in a stranger’s confessions is one of life’s great guilty pleasures.
It’s with the third group, though, that things can get more than a little uncomfortable. You know these people, but you don’t KNOW know them. They have secrets. Things you’d never suspect nor even imagine. Nor should you since it’s none of your business.
While much of the book will be news to you, there’ll be an eerie undertone of familiarity to it. You might recognize places or specific events. You may know other people mentioned in the book. Or worst of all, you’ll find yourself asking, “Was that me? Did they mean me?”
This is where I found myself while reading Crazy: Memoir of a Mom Gone Mad by Charise Jewell, a woman I’ve known for a few years thanks to our children having played on a minor hockey team together.
I wouldn’t consider Charise a close friend, but we aren’t strangers. We no longer live in the same province, but I can’t imagine we wouldn’t say hi and trade a few pleasantries should our paths cross again.
We support each other in a minimalist way. Both being writers (she, obviously, far more advanced), I think we share a mutual curiosity for each other’s work. She follows my blog and regularly “likes” my posts, something I greatly appreciate. For my part, well, I bought and read her book.
Spoiler Alert for Remainder of Review
Crazy is an autobiographical account of the manic episode that led to Charise’s bipolar diagnosis as well as her subsequent relapse, second manic episode, and eventual recovery. It is blunt, heart-wrenching, and because I know the author, her family, and some of the other people mentioned in the book, one hell of an uncomfortable book to read.
Seriously. From start to finish it felt wholly inappropriate for me to be reading it. Like I was some perverse fly on the wall listening in on a colleague’s most personal, unpleasant confessions. Normally, I would just chuckle to myself thinking, “Wow, what a basketcase this person is. Can you imagine having to deal with that insanity?” But this was someone I’d spoken to on occasion. Our kids had played hockey together. I’d helped coach with her husband.
And yet despite that familiarity, everything in the book was completely unknown to me. Even events that appear to have occurred while our lives were connected. I just had no idea. That left me shook. Proof positive that others rarely know what is going on behind the masks we don in public. It also suggests that my community gossip game is severely lacking.
Crazy wastes no time in revealing the realities of a burgeoning manic episode for someone with bipolar 1 mood disorder. In the prologue, Charise shares details of a family dinner at which she literally served garbage, much to the bewilderment of her family.
As a reader, I shared this bewilderment. It was kind of funny, if a bit gross. As a Monty Python skit, it would have been hilarious. As a real-life anecdote, my laughter was tinged with what-the-hell unease.
The mania picks up steam through the first handful of chapters. You can easily relate to the growing confusion of the author’s family as their once “normal” mother/wife’s behaviour spins further into the peculiar.
Conversely, the author is equally confused. She doesn’t understand why her whole family is so suddenly apprehensive. In her mind, she’s done nothing out of the ordinary. She surely hasn’t changed. Why is everyone getting so freaked out? These internal ruminations and rationalisations are truly fascinating, pulling back the curtain on what it’s like to have a mental illness.
It was the hypersexuality, however, that really unsettled me. Maybe I’m more prudish than I realize but reading about acquaintances’ erotic adventures in the backseat of their car in a parking garage wasn’t on my list of expectations for this book. Nor were the author’s speculations that men she saw or passed by in seemingly innocuous locations all lusted for her.
In my youth, I had a great aunt who was manic-depressive. That’s the old, discredited term for bipolar. Prior to learning of Charise’s experience, my great aunt was my only known interaction with a bipolar person. My most vibrant memory of her is the Christmas where she was immersed in a manic episode. Every gift she received was the greatest present she’d ever gotten and was granted the most exaggerated expression of surprise and gratitude. As an insensitive teen, I found this both ridiculous and hilarious. The night was capped off when her gift to me was a pair of purple corduroy gloves, both right-handed. My sister would receive half a door knocker.
Thinking back to my great aunt through the lens of having read this book, I’m more than a little discomfited by the possibility that hypersexuality was one of her symptoms. I guess I’ve yet to move past the taboo of older folks having any sexuality whatsoever, never mind a hyper one. I only saw brief glimpses of her illness. I now know she was much more than quirky behaviour at family gatherings.
This is where Crazy excels. It doesn’t just expose you to the day-to-day happenings of a bipolar person, it takes you into the mind of the very person enduring them. From the chaos of mania to the despondency afterwards, you’re getting an unvarnished look at real life with a real mental illness. It forces you to rethink everything you’ve ever assumed about “crazy” people.
That’s no easy task. The book wants you to side with the author, but I struggled to do so. As a tertiary observer, I found it far easier to empathize with her doctor and her husband. I’m still not convinced everything happened as the author remembers it. And there were some objectionable, even criminal, incidents claimed to have occurred.
The only witnesses are Charise and the alleged perpetrators. Who would you believe? An articulate, educated woman, former robotics engineer, and mother of three is as reliable as source as you’ll find. But toss in the bipolar caveat and suddenly your trust evaporates quicker than a psych patient’s dignity.
Crazy continually challenges this bias, most deftly when the author laments the constant internal second-guessing of her every word and action. Can I say this? Can I do that? Will it sound or look crazy if I do? Will it if I don’t?
This, I could relate to. My insecurities often leave me contemplating similar conundrums. Imagine that self-doubt amplified tenfold beneath the ever-present burden of a mental illness diagnosis. It would be unconscionably frustrating. And terrifying. Afterall, how does one not appear crazy when everyone around you is on pins and needles anticipating your next episode of crazy?
I have two criticisms of Crazy, though criticism may not be the best word. They relate to Charise’s thoughts and who am I to say they’re wrong or don’t belong in a memoir. But they did irk me more so than make me uncomfortable. Make of that what you will.
The first is the author’s obsession with her doctor’s race. This gets mentioned often in part one as the initial manic episode unfolds in the hospital emergency and psychiatric wards and includes some awkward narration. It was unclear to me if this was another manifestation of the manic episode, but regardless, it felt out of step with the current social climate.
Second, is the intimation that misogyny was behind the actions of men in the book. And not just any men, again the doctor and the author’s husband were the targets of these accusations. Of course, I’m a man and husband myself so my umbrage is unlikely a surprise. More of my bias on display. But I’d like to think I, and others, would have been equally mistrusting of a male bipolar patient recounting events that took place during/after a manic episode. Not that that is any less problematic.
Rating this book is awfully difficult. I really did dislike reading it. Not because it is a bad book or poorly written. It’s not. In fact, after a tentative start, the author really hit her stride a quarter of the way through resulting in a readable, engaging, and informative story.
I disliked reading it because it made me so continuously and deeply uncomfortable. Like an infected wound exposed from underneath blood-crusted bandages one slow, hair-ripping tug at a time. Then again, I suspect that was the whole point.
As such, I highly recommend reading Crazy: Memoir of a Mom Gone Mad. Charise Jewell boldly invites you into her life and into her mind to experience how a mental illness manifests and the impacts it has on the individual and their loved ones. It’ll make you think and question. It’ll also make you cringe and chafe. As good books should.
4 Baby Dill Pickles out of 5.