On Adam Haslett’s IMAGINE ME GONE
The isolation and invisibility of the 10 million Americans managing disabling mental illness is too often compounded by ableist assumptions: that people who experience major depression or bipolar disorder nurture their unhappiness, that they depend on drugs as a crutch rather than use them as a legitimate treatment, that they are taking too many drugs, not enough drugs, haven’t given their drugs a chance or have been taking drugs for too long. Even more painful, these misconceptions often come from well-meaning family and friends who frequently double as caregivers who provide systems of support. The guilt, love, anger and worry that comes from navigating mental health within a family is at the heart of Adam Haslett’s Imagine Me Gone. Narrated by various members of a family—lonely and depressed Michael, responsible Celia, uptight Alec, and their parents, Margaret and John—the book is unified by their struggle to understand one another and be understood in return.
After opening with the suicide of Michael, Haslett quickly moves back in time to the restrained and nervous courtship of Margaret and John. Soon after their engagement, and without warning, John is hospitalized with what his doctor refers to as an “imbalance.” Margaret discovers this is not the first time John has been hospitalized, but decides to marry him despite the uncertainty of his mental health. John’s inability to manage his depression and his eventual suicide when his children are still young foreshadow his son Michael's difficulty in managing his own mental health. However, Haslett’s characters don’t reduce Michael’s depression and anxiety to a genetic inevitability. As Margaret realizes her son needs medical help, she also refutes the all-knowing assumptions of doctors. She notes, “They hear about John, and that’s it. They’re convinced it’s in the genes. Which I am sure is part of it. But they didn’t know them both. Michael’s not his father.” But, Haslett also deftly explores the consuming uneasiness and exhaustion, guilt and frustration the family shares in understanding Michael’s mental illness. For each of them, including Michael, their patterns of managing become increasingly untenable. Late in the novel, when Celia returns home after dealing with Michael’s latest crisis, she explains, “After that trip, the way I had always been toward Michael gave out like an exhausted muscle.” She muses, “Where did it end? What level of need couldn’t he surpass?” and realizes, “No one’s capacity was infinite.” While Alec and Margaret find it more difficult to draw boundaries in their interactions with Michael, they too feel a mounting level of stress in their inability to “fix” him. When Celia receives a call from Alec wanting to discuss the family dynamic she notes, “There had been an episode...And now the charge of anxiety it had sparked was completing the family circuit.” Although they love him, Michael’s family simply doesn’t always know how to talk to him. They make mistakes. They make assumptions about his illness. Most notably, Alec is confident that Michael just needs to stop taking medication. As he tries to help wean Michael off of his meds, he thinks, “We were doing the right thing. He just needed to take off the last bandage. Like Celia said, the sedatives had walled his feelings in, and the higher the walls go, the more he feared what they protected him from.”
As powerful as each of Michael's family members’ perspectives are, the chapters narrated by Michael himself allow this novel about the impact of a family living with mental illness to bloom. Rather than sidelining him in his own story, the chapters narrated by the voice of the character who actually experiences mental illness are the most intriguing and powerful. When we read Alec worry about Michael’s medication, or Celia at her breaking point with Michael’s endless, late-night calls, he comes off as selfish and distraught. But in his own voice, he is self-deprecating, and endearing, particularly in his love of music. He reveals, “I listened to records in every spare hour, including while I did my homework, and on my headset after I’d ‘gone to bed.’ I couldn’t be certain what it meant to ‘Give Up the Funk,’ or ‘Tear the Roof of the Sucker,’ or why Parliament would title an album Mothership Connection. But I had my first secret joy at knowing that beyond the veil of the apparent, meaning ached in the grain of music.”
Even with the prevalence of suicide and the themes of familial guilt and loss, Haslett avoids wallowing in melodrama or mawkish sentimentality most successfully with Michael’s chapters. Margaret, Celia, Alec, and John often narrate one poignant moment in their lives which distills their relationships with one another and illuminates where they fit in the family unit and the outside world. Margaret remembers learning of her fiancé’s mental illness. Celia remembers a boat ride with her father, in which he plays a macabre game with his children, asking them to imagine him gone. Fretful Alec remembers a time he pretended to lock himself in the bathroom forcing his father out of bed. These are deeply internal and heartbreaking moments that also do so much work in defining the family dynamic. But it is Michael’s chapters that offer a surprising and necessary humor.
Michael’s chapters recall Haslett’s earlier short story collection, You Are Not a Stranger Here, particularly the story “Notes to My Biographer.” In this story, Haslett has created a hilariously compelling character—an inventor with a history of institutionalization who, nearing the end of his life, is going on a road trip in a stolen car to visit his estranged children. This narrator possesses a similar self-deprecating and sly humor and reveals the way his mental health issues are manifested in very selfish behaviors. The narrator of “Notes to my Biographer” never really lets the readers too far past his glib veneer. However, the breadth of the novel allows Haslett to imbue Michael with a sensitivity and heart that tempers his selfishness.
Unlike the rest of his family, Michael tells his story in various forms including a recorded voicemail message, psychiatric intake form, letters to his aunt, an “after-action report” of a family therapy session, and a request for a loan forbearance. Speaking in overt metaphor, he is sly and witty, and his words can carry a sting. But, the depth of love for his family is also revealed in a way that he doesn’t seem capable of stating outright. These metaphors also allow him to speak of his disappointment with himself and address his own shortcomings. When filling out a patient intake form, he describes his family history:
Let’s not pretend either of us has time for a complete answer here. In brief, Dad didn’t make it; Mom’s never taken a pill in her life; Alec had an ulcer early on, when they were still fashionable, but has since transitioned into the back-pain industry; and I’d guestimate Celia’s chronic fatigue peaked out around ’94 somewhere in the Bay Area, though she still has Persistent Annual Lupus Scare Syndrome (PALSS) and Cryptogenic Abdominal Rash Syndrome (CARS). As for my grandparents, all four suffered from Eventual Death Syndrome (EDS).
Later, after a family therapy session, Michael describes the attempt to find a parking space this way:
Trying to regroup, Alec commenced a psyop designed to convince Mom that an open stretch of curb downwind of a laundromat ended more than twelve feet from the adjacent hydrant. The operation failed. Mom ordered a higher alert. Celia observed that we had been on one for a decade.
The novel, perhaps inevitably, circles back to Michael’s suicide. And, the trajectory of the rest of the family at the end of the novel does feel a bit too tidy. It aligns itself a bit too closely with a medical model of disability. Disability scholar Rosemarie Garland Thomson explains, “The medical model that governs today’s interpretation of disability assumes that any somatic trait that falls short of the idealized norm must be corrected or eliminated.” Within the confines of this model, Michael’s ill body must necessarily and inescapably disappear because it cannot be cured. Further, it is only after his disappearance that his abled family members can find closure. But, with the closure of this novel, there is also a satisfaction that comes from being able to feel the loss of Michael, knowing that we were allowed into his mind and the minds of those who loved him so deeply, that even in his flawed family, compassion and love and family and caregiving overwrite mere obligation.
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Loretta McCormick is a English PhD student at UWM and is the Editor in Chief of cream city review. Her fiction writing and her critical interests often explore issues of disability and she is particularly interested in exploring intersections between myth and science.