Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Circles Around the Sun by Molly McCloskey

In Circles Around the Sun: In Search of a Lost Brother, Molly McCloskey takes an intimate, personal, sometimes painful look at life in her family growing up in the 1960s and 1970s. Although the focus is on her oldest brother Mike, diagnosed with schizophrenia at the age of 23, McCloskey also examines her own anxiety, the break-up of her parents’ marriage, and the dynamic between siblings.

The author is the youngest of six children; her brother Mike is the oldest. She has no clear memories of Mike before he became ill. Throughout her adult life she has wanted to write about Mike, and this book is the culmination of her efforts to learn about him and his life and how his illness affected her entire family. One of the most touching exchanges in the book comes when she asked Mike, “Do you mind being in this book I’m writing about the family?” “I would expect to be,” he replied. Then he added, “I don’t murder anyone, do I? Do you write murder mysteries?” “No, the author replied, “you don’t murder anyone.”

Mike’s mother and siblings have made a determined effort to stay in touch with him as he copes with his mental illness. McCloskey perfectly describes awkward meetings at a restaurant near his group home that made me cringe in discomfort. She captures the physical changes that the drugs have on her brother, causing me to feel great sympathy for those prescribed loxapine (an antipsychotic), lithium (a mood stabilizer), and similar drugs. They help control the illness but have a great detrimental affect on one’s physical well-being.

The author spends a lot of time talking about her own life and mental health challenges given that the book is presented as being primarily about her brother. There is a lot of background about how her parents met, fell in love, had six children, grew apart, and divorced.

Circles Around the Sun is as much a picture of American life in the 60s and 70s as it is an examination of schizophrenia. Scattered throughout the book are family pictures, which felt very familiar to me since I am around the same age as the author. The photos struck a real cord with me and are the biggest strength of the book.

There is no orchestrated happy ending for Circles Around the Sun. Life goes on for Mike in his group home, for Molly dealing with her own anxiety, and for the rest of her family. Circles Around the Sun is a sad book, but one worth reading if you are related to or spend time around someone with mental illness.

I read an advance reading copy; Circles Around the Sun will be available in October 2012. 

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