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Drawn From Life
An alumna finds a novel in her struggle with bipolar disorder.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
Juliann Garey ’88 was 39 when the drugs keeping her
bipolar disorder in check stopped working. Much of Too Bright to Hear
Too Loud to See, her debut novel from Soho Press, was written during
the seven-year odyssey of drug trials, specialists, and increasingly severe
episodes that followed, before her condition was more or less stabilized a year
ago. It’s the story of Greyson Todd, a Hollywood executive with bipolar
disorder who abandons his family and roams the globe for a decade. The book
cuts back and forth across Greyson’s life, from his childhood to the psych ward
where he undergoes electroconvulsive therapy (ECT). Garey lives in New York
with her husband and two teenaged children.
Y: It sounds like writing this book was a pretty
immediate process for you.
G: There were times when I was manic, and I wrote a
scene where [Greyson] was also manic. In that sense, that part of it is not
fiction. Other parts of it I did a lot of research for, because I’ve never been
to Bangkok; I’ve never been to Kenya or Uganda. And some of it is an extreme,
fictionalized riff on my father’s childhood. Because my father committed
suicide when I was 16, and I don’t know what his childhood was like.
Y: Had your father been diagnosed?
G: My father was not. He was the last person on earth
anyone would have expected to commit suicide. But we believe that he was
misdiagnosed and treated with antidepressants, had one severe manic episode,
and that was all it took. In retrospect, everyone thinks he probably had
Y: Is there a broader history of it in your family?
G: There have been five suicides in two generations in
my family. My paternal grandmother had five brothers; three of them committed
suicide. I don’t know if that’s equal to the Wittgensteins, but we’re close.
Y: How did you come up with the book’s structure?
G: I started with one short story about his childhood,
and then another and another. Then I imagined what that boy would be like as an
adult. I just kept writing, but I could not come up with a structure.
And then I was hospitalized in 2009. The doctor I was
seeing insisted that I needed ECT. Fortunately, they turned me down as a
candidate, because I’m a writer and rely on my memory. But while I was in the
hospital, I looked around at the ECT patients and I thought, well, this might
be a good structure for the book.
Y: I wanted to ask about that scene in Kampala, where
he has a really severe episode—
G: Where he stabs himself with the fish fork. That’s
the scene I usually do at readings. The bees that he talks about hearing—that
is something I felt. It was not like, “I’m feeling really sad today,” or “I’m
feeling really overly caffeinated.” It’s like you have shards of glass running
through your veins. I literally felt there was a hive of bees inside. It’s a
physical feeling of sickness. And I’m so far from it now. It’s like what they
say about childbirth—you forget how painful it was.
Y: You’ve said you were worried about your kids’
reaction to the book. Why?
G: I worried that it would be upsetting to them. It’s
one thing if somebody else had written it. But that their mother had written it
is something else. But I think they’re old enough to read it now. They’re
pretty well read and sophisticated. They can handle it.