Title: Angelhead: My Brother’s Descent into Madness
Author: Greg Bottoms
Release date: April 2005
Publisher: University Of Chicago Press
Source: Personal collection (memoir class)
Rating: 4 out of 5
When Greg Bottoms tackles the demons of his past, he’s being literal. In Angelhead, he writes of his brother’s heartbreaking decline into paranoid schizophrenia, and the terror and grief the entire family suffers.
Greg Bottoms was a young boy when he witnessed his brother’s first psychotic break. From that time on, he and his family suffered through Michael’s increasingly violent and disturbing behavior.
There is a lot in the story that Greg can’t know—like what was going through Michael’s mind—that he supplements with thorough research. When Michael has a psychotic break at school, Greg seems to use observation, research, and guesswork to get into Michael’s head:
One day the world turned white for Michael. Each object—door, floor, table, human—was wrung dry of all its meaning and he was left floating in a stark nothingness. . . . But then Jesus disappeared, and Michael knew it was because he had failed him, failed Christ, failed God, by being so lazy, by failing to learn what needed to be learned. He looked up at the numbers above doorways. They crushed him with their secrets. They whispered. The numbers were real. If he just concentrated on the numbers he’d be okay, he’d find Christ again; he’d learn about numbers, the curves, the lines, what they meant, how they related to things.
I doubt that Michael had the lucidity to describe to Greg what he was thinking, so in scenes like these he has to fill in a lot of blanks. Despite his extensive research, which he references several times in the book, Greg never quotes from books or experts on mental illness (unless it’s a doctor who plays into the story). Instead, he incorporates the dreamlike (sometimes nightmare-like) quality of Michael’s madness into the prose. He relies heavily on poetic license and imagery, as when Michael torches the family home:
He went to the end of our road, about a mile away, and sat at the edge of the black river, where wooden fishing boats were tied to pilings, floating on their own dark reflections. He prayed, pulling hard on his third, then his fourth cigarette. He waited for the blue souls of my family to go flying past, toward the safe, bright stars.
Without the poetic and literary devices Greg employs, he might not have had much of a story. I’m glad he wrote in the introduction that sections like these were based on what he thought happened. If I thought that nonfiction had to be straight-up reporting, I might not like some of his more speculative scenes. But I thought he did a great job conveying what he knew, what he researched, and what he guessed. If something was fact, he’d say so; otherwise, he’d say “might” or “perhaps” – but without losing the momentum of the story.
Bottoms is a vivid, lyrical writer. Like Amy Fusselman—a fellow punk rocker—he uses short, declarative sentences followed by long, emotional run-ons. His rich, gorgeous descriptions that make scenes and characters come alive, like when he remembers his mother’s reaction to Michael’s schizophrenia diagnosis:
I have an image of my mother staring at the dark wood of our kitchen table, saying, I don’t know what we’re going to do, saying this with no inflection, like the undead talking in a late-night movie. It was February. There was cold, sharp light in the room. A pitiful midday sun made geometric shapes the color of stained teeth on the kitchen floor.
The raw, ugly images Bottoms uses—the undead, stained teeth, and others—serve to reinforce the pain he experienced growing up with an acutely mentally ill sibling.
More than an examination of his brother’s decline, Angelhead is an exploration of Greg Bottoms’ guilt and grief—and his attempt to build a life after madness. He writes,
We never talked about Michael, partly because his insane behavior was “normal” to us, partly because it was too much to deal with to put our feelings into words and exchange them. What was there to say? Or rather, there was everything to say, and with that in front of you language becomes daunting, a burden, a pack of lies and false feelings, a trap you set for yourself, sentence by sentence.
Yet this book is his belated attempt to discuss the bewildering and distressing experience of seeing a loved one with schizophrenia. This theme resurfaces when Greg reaches college:
I began reading all the time, endlessly, book after book, always looking to find the grand tragedy rendered with meaning—the more transgressive, the more violent, the better, because by the middle of the book I wanted to see how this mess would be fixed, how a life, even a sad, broken, imaginary life, could be saved. I started to believe—and I still believe—that I could somehow save myself with a story, and even though I couldn’t save anyone else, I could try to understand them, attempt to grant them at least that, and perhaps it is in this, this attempt to understand, that a person is truly saved.
The story he is telling now is his attempt to cleanse and save himself through the story. This is the kind of honest insight I would have liked to see in Rosman’s book! It resonated quite a bit in me; this is how I cope with grief as well.
Greg builds a good deal of suspense in the book. How far will Michael go? Of what violence is he capable? But Greg also builds suspense about what will happen to the family. Greg writes of them from a distance, with a feeling of palpable guilt and regret, and the reader knows that the bonds of the family will be tested and may not hold well in the book.
It was a tough book to read—graphically violent, at times permeated with guilt and regret—and I’m not sure I’d want to re-read it. But Greg relates the story with beauty and respect. He is unflinchingly honest, freely admitting his mistakes and the guilt he still feels for them, and that redeems the book.