It’s riveting. It’s scary. It’s based on experience.
“Crazy” (Eerdmans, $9 paper), by Linda Vigen Phillips of Charlotte, is a novel about growing up with a parent who is mentally ill.
“She has that weird, / faraway look in her eyes / that I’ve seen so often recently, / and her voice / sounds like one of Uncle Ned’s warped records, / sing-songy and high-pitched.”
That’s Laura, the novel’s 15-year-old narrator, describing one of her mom’s bipolar episodes. Laura’s growing up in the 1960s. She doesn’t talk about her mother’s illness to friends or teachers. No one at home talks about it either.
She makes good grades and loves art. A teacher tells her she could be as good as Van Gogh.
Sometimes Laura does well and sometimes she doesn’t.
“My head feels like / spaghetti. Daddy is still gone / and Mother hasn’t slept / for two wild-eyed nights, / so neither have I.”
Laura’s mom is also an artist. Laura wonders: Is that what brought her down? Could it bring me down, too?
The novel is written in free verse, which you stop noticing as you read.
Phillips herself grew up in Oregon in the ’60s with a bipolar mom. No one talked about it.
“It was the silent era,” she says, “and my father was a taciturn Norwegian. Talk therapy wasn’t in vogue either.”
Phillips turned to her journal the way Laura turns to art. It was her salvation.
Unlike Laura, Phillips says she never thought about taking her own life.
“I had an enormously wonderful bunch of friends who put up with me,” she says. “Some way or another, I managed to stay intact.”
Phillips was teaching elementary school in Kannapolis, when she was driven to get up at 4 each morning to write. Poems about her teen years started pouring out. “It was like puss coming out of my system,” she says.
She showed the poems to her Charlotte writing buddy Carol Baldwin, who thought they’d make a novel.
Kirkus Review criticizes “Crazy” for its “optimistic assertion” from a doctor about the future of Laura’s mental health. The fictional Dr. Goodman tells Laura that she has a “strong, healthy father” and a “good fighting chance” against this disease.
“They didn’t know then what they know now,” says Phillips. “A simple, ‘Go on with your life,’ was par for the course.”
Phillips says she and her grown twin sons both suffer depression and are on maintenance doses of an antidepressant.
“But I’m not crazy,” she says. And neither is the fictional Laura whose story compels us to care for her and cheer her on.