Writing a book on mental illness has never been an easy subject. Most people tend to shy away from reading stories that attempt a peek into the tortured minds struggling with depression, anxiety, bi-polar disorder, or many of its other insidious manifestations. This reluctance arises not on account of lack of compassion, but mainly because such stories are not optimistic or uplifting. Some of those who may have experienced mental illness in the family, view such narratives as a painful reminder of the impossibility of the situation, their own grief and anger, possibly guilt also, and their powerlessness to mitigate the lives of the people they love.
Imagine Me Gone by Adam Haslett is the story of a couple, John and Margaret, and their three children Michael, Celia, and Alec. Quite early during their courtship Margaret becomes aware that John suffers from episodes where his mind goes blank that is how the doctor explains John’s situation to Margaret. When she informs the doctor that she is set to marry him, he ponders over her statement for a long time before asking, “In that case I presume you love him”. When she answers in the affirmative, he responds gently, “Well, then, that’s as it should be”. Margaret unflinchingly chooses to marry John despite knowing his condition.
As John and Mary settle into their marriage, she is constantly aware that John’s mind can shut down any time. During the next fifteen years, their marriage follows the typical cycle – passion for each other giving way to the tedium of matrimony that is dotted by financial difficulties, transatlantic crossings in search of stable employment, and routine bickering. John continues to be a benign, friendly presence in the lives of their children, playing games with them that he invents at the spur of the moment. During one such episode, he plays dead in a boat while in an open sea telling Celia and Alec: “Imagine me gone, imagine it is just the two of you. What do you do”? Perhaps, in playing that sad game, he is preparing them for his impending suicide as he knows that eventually he will lose his battle against depression.
The rest of the story unfolds over the next few decades as Margaret, Celia, and Alec try to come to terms not only with John’s suicide, but also Michael who has started showing the same signs of mental illness as his father. As they grapple with their own lives, they also try and reach out to Michael and help him deal with that constant anxiety that has begun to unravel his life. It is here - in this reaching out by the family members - that Adam Haslett skillfully explores the limits of compassion, the burden of guilt, and the breakdown of hope. Although they love him immensely, and want to help him, they just don’t exactly know how. They agonize over what will fix him. They make assumptions about his illness, his dependence on medicines, and his compulsive interest in racial justice. You see, during his saner moments, Michael not only displays an encyclopaedic knowledge about music, but also a beating heart for the marginalized, especially the black Americans.
Adam Haslett has chosen to narrate the story through alternating perspectives of the five protagonists – John and Margaret, and the three siblings. This is an ingenious way of peeping not only into the afflicted minds of John and Michael, but also into the inner recesses of other family members who are trying to weather the storm and pick up the debris in its wake. This structural construct allows Adam Haslett to present Michael in flesh and blood.
Michael’s narration takes varied forms such as a recorded voicemail message, a wildly inventive series of letters to his aunt, a psychiatric evaluation form, an “after-action report” of a family group session, and a request for student loan waiver. It is through these riffs that readers see his self-deprecating humour, his witty mind, and his endearing soul.
Adam Haslett has succeeded brilliantly in this book by addressing mental illness in the most humane, careful, and tender manner. He steers clear from romanticizing pain by remaining focused on the complexities of mental illness and shining light on it from diverse angels: Michael’s dependence on medication and Alec’s doomed attempt to wean him away from it, Celia’s professional take as a therapist, and Margaret’s willingness to always dig deep into her reserves in order to tide over each approaching storm.