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Review: 'Angelhead' a brutal, but often poetic, look at battle with mental illness
"Angelhead: My Brother's Descent Into Madness"
(CNN) -- What is it like to watch your older brother quickly progress from someone you know to someone completely foreign to you? And what must it be like to live through the guilt and anguish that comes with this?
These questions are answered in "Angelhead," Greg Bottoms' brutal and often poetic account of his brother Michael's battle with schizophrenia.
His story begins in suburbia, where his brother Michael is one of many "troubled" kids, one of the many "heads, loners, future dropouts." This, as Bottoms points out, is not a sign of much at all -- many of the troubled kids in high school become the successes of tomorrow. And this is the root of much of the guilt that runs throughout "Angelhead": even after he's progressed beyond "troubled," it is not until he's been given a diagnosis that Michael is seen as someone truly ill.
Much of "Angelhead" deals with what occurs prior to this diagnosis. As Michael progresses from being a bad kid and part of the "wrong crowd" to something worse, something more difficult to ignore, his family, perhaps because they are so close to him, continues to ignore his problems. As he becomes more and more religious, feverishly reading the Bible and quoting scripture, he also becomes more withdrawn and more unpredictable.
As Bottoms points out, it is not until later that he realizes how sudden these changes in Michael were. He writes, "But then something snapped inside his head. That seems the only way to describe it: a snap, a breaking, a coming undone."
As things get worse and Michael becomes more difficult to live with, his parents send him to Florida with some money and the order to get a job. While in Florida, horrible things happen. When he returns from Florida, sullen and barely alive, Michael is finally diagnosed with acute paranoid schizophrenia. For Bottoms and his family, the diagnosis changes things, allowing them to make sense of what they've been ignoring and to have a name for what they realize they've known all along.
The diagnosis, while putting a label on Michael, dredges up unbearable guilt in his family: guilt for having ever made fun of him in school; guilt for sending a sick child off to Florida to "straighten out."
Disturbing truths, stunningly written
"Angelhead" is a disturbing book. It is stunningly written and Bottoms has found the perfect voice with which to present it, but one feels funny discussing things like voice and prose style when dealing with this book. These matters of style lose their importance in light of their subject.
"Angelhead" is disturbing not for what it tells us about schizophrenia. One imagines that the experience of the Bottoms family is not unique; given the prevalence of schizophrenia, other families often watch their children changing in ways they can't, or won't, face. No, it is disturbing for the way in which it deals with all the guilt that comes with our tip-toeing around people like Michael, with the way we disown them and speak of them in the past tense.
Just as we often forget that our family members have lives and minds outside of their relationship to us, we forget that it is never possible to truly know what is going on in someone else's head, to know what it is like for someone like Michael Bottoms to walk around convinced that he needs to kill his father.
In this way, "Angelhead" becomes more than an account of Michael Bottoms' "descent into madness." It is about our own approach to mental illness and the ease with which we ignore its victims, stepping over them on the street, pretending that they do not exist. It is a book about family and guilt, and the way in which the two often feed off each other, making it difficult to face each other's problems.
And, through Bottoms' examination of his own guilt, "Angelhead" allows us to examine ours, to replace some of our confusion and suspicion with empathy and concern.
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