TEN YEARS AGO, my now ex-wife began showing signs of a troubling paranoia. She would come home from her job as a financial analyst and hint at a conspiracy among her bosses to cause her some unspecified form of harm. As her condition got worse, the conspiracy widened: it came to include not only her supervisors, but also the president of the college where we’d met, all of Hollywood, and, at times, my family and me.
Of these alleged perpetrators, the one that soon came to take pride of place in her fevered brain was the film industry. Every time she would see a movie, she would claim it was about her, which I soon came to understand she meant in a very literal sense. She felt the filmmakers were spying on her and then putting different versions of her life up on the screen. She would check the box office receipts religiously. When a movie she saw had risen to number one, she was both excited and alarmed: she had made it to the top, but it meant that the range of the conspiracy had widened.
At the root of my ex-wife’s condition was a compulsion to see everything as connected. Her condition was pathological, but it was also representative of a larger human tendency: the search for a greater meaning in the events we experience on a daily basis. After all, if everything that happens to us is always and only what it literally is, drained of symbolic value, then our lives are empty. We can only stare down the void.
There’s a very real sense, too, in which certain forms of mental illness mirror the very specific aims of the writer. As writers sift through layers of reality, they shape the raw material of life into something that has outline and meaning. Even in so-called nonfiction, real-life events are marshalled into a coherent narrative, significance is deduced from what may be a random series of occurrences, and metaphor is employed to yoke the ordinary to the inherently meaningful.
Jeannie Vanasco explores this link between mental illness and the compulsion to write in her new memoir The Glass Eye. She traces the process that led her to undertake the book, the fulfillment of a promise she made to her dad shortly before he died when she was 18. Promise or no promise, though, we soon come to understand that she could not not write this book, since she’s long been obsessed with the memory of her father and since, she tells us early on, she’s been making various attempts at telling her father’s story for over a decade, “poems, essays, short stories, a novel, several versions of a memoir — all titled The Glass Eye.”
The other strands of Vanasco’s book involve her bipolar disorder and her childhood discovery that her father had had a daughter with his first wife. This girl, whose name is spelled Jeanne but pronounced the same as the author’s — and after whom she was christened — died in a car accident two decades before she was born. Jeannie’s obsessive quest to fit her father’s and her half-sister’s life into some sort of coherent, meaningful narrative both provides the book with its exploratory thrust and, in its paranoid excesses, fuels her encroaching mental illness.
Both Jeannie the narrator and Vanasco the memoirist share a technique: an obsessive employment of metaphor. The book’s central metaphor is the eponymous glass eye, which had replaced Jeannie’s father’s eye late in life. “Only after he died did [the glass eye] obsess me,” she writes. “Describing my dad through the metaphor of his eye comes easy; encapsulating him in plain language feels impossible.” Although the eye was actually made of plastic, the fact that it was called glass is significant for its symbolic potential. As Vanasco writes, “Glass implies the ability to be broken.”
Later, one of Jeannie’s doctors will note that one of her symptoms is “clang associations,” a tendency to connect words by sound rather than meaning. Indeed, she dwells endlessly on the relationship between the words “eye,” “I,” and “i”; the latter of these is the letter added to her own name to differentiate her from her half sister, while the capital “I” represents herself. She even comes up with an equation “eye + i = I,” implying that her identity has been formed both by the memory of her father and the phantom presence of his deceased daughter. Jeannie, though, is quick to reject the idea that this equation is simply a question of sonic association. “To me, ‘eye’ and ‘i’ and ‘I’ are connected by meaning. Maybe I was experiencing mania. I know I was experiencing grief.”
Vanasco is not really interested in answering the question of how much of Jeannie’s pain and thinking is caused by grief over her father’s loss (as she explains to all her doctors) and how much of it is caused by mental illness. She certainly makes it clear that her bipolar disorder is real and that her decades-long obsession with her dad’s death is unhealthy, but she refuses to draw an absolute divide between grief and illness.
And yet, the author comes to understand the dangers of too much meaning. Late in the book, she describes a scene where Jeannie is overwhelmed with coincidences. In the hospital, she overhears a man mention the date March 2. Since that’s the date when Jeanne died, she thinks it’s a cosmic sign. As the scene progresses and Jeannie wanders out into the city, the signs and symbols pile up until the reader is led to understand — without any explicit authorial commentary — the extent of Jeannie’s pathology: “I’m in St. Patrick’s [cathedral] where Jeanne received her medal,” she writes in her journal, as she sums up the perceived connections.
Everything is coming together: the third-floor fire — a sign to step back from my dad’s life; Genie — a sign that a name is simply a name but that Jeanne is the focus of my story; “the Elephant Whisperer,” like Jeanne, died on March 2 — a reminder that grieving is a ritual.
Vanasco’s project, tracing the narrator’s fraught quest to find intrinsic meaning in the details of her life, is one shared by many other contemporary memoirists. These writers all seem to understand the same thing: that the basic narrative arc of virtually every subgenre of memoir is already incredibly well worn. And so they proceed with a healthy dose of self-consciousness, outlining their endless quest for significance while casting doubt on the essential nature of the memoirist’s art.
Certainly this is the case with Angela Palm’s 2016 book Riverine. In telling the story of her upbringing on the floodplains of the Kankakee River in rural Indiana, Palm uses the specifics of the terrain to imply that geography is destiny. The harsh land, which is always subject to river overflow, is geographically separated from the rest of the town, and keeps its inhabitants poor and immobile. But then, in telling the divergent stories of her childhood neighbor, now a convicted murderer, and her own escape to Vermont to become a writer, she shows the limits of seeing the world as strictly metaphor. Humans are endowed with a will that can transcend both one’s upbringing and any figurative comparisons with landscape. But even after this acknowledgment, Palm reverts back to her natural inclination in a riverine burst of reflection. “People, especially young ones, are malleable. Like wet sediment. Guided by whatever kind of banks have lined their river, by what has held them,” she concludes.
Similarly, in Grégoire Bouillier’s 2004 memoir L’invité mystère (The Mystery Guest, 2006), the author allows us access to a consciousness that can’t help but see everything as metaphorically connected. Walking a fine line between literary probing and madness, Bouillier tells the story of his being invited to a party by an ex-partner at the height of a depression/existential crisis. “How appropriate,” he thinks, reflecting on his ex’s decision to call him up:
And on the exact same day Michel Leiris died was my next thought, and the coincidence struck me as so outlandish it was all I could do to keep from laughing. I felt as if I’d tapped in to the inner hilarity of things, or else brushed up against a truth so overwhelming only a fit of hysterics could keep it at bay; but maybe it wasn’t a coincidence at all.
Soon the narrator’s sense of connection expands further to take on world historical events such as the then-recent reunification of Germany, which allows him to see his ex’s invite (and their potential reunification) as “part of the march of history.” But Bouillier’s insistence on viewing everything metaphorically has its limits as he, like Palm, reluctantly acknowledges:
The death of Michel Leiris hadn’t unlocked anything inside [my ex.] […] It hadn’t inspired her to call me, the way I’d thought, and this meant I’d come up with the metaphor all by myself to lend depth and meaning to her call and find some echo, out there in the universe, of the repercussion Leiris had made in me.
After trying unsuccessfully to find my ex-wife treatment, I felt completely incapable of helping her and called her father to come pick her up and take her back to her native Bulgaria. (In this, I fell far short of the loving attentions of Vanasco’s partner, Chris.) For years, I felt guilty about the way I handled the situation, and this feeling has resurfaced whenever I’ve thought about recounting it on the page, as I have here. When you write about someone else — whether it’s a father, a never-known half sister, or a mentally ill ex-wife — you are using someone else’s life for your own literary gain. There is great culpability in this use of someone else’s suffering.
At the end of The Glass Eye, Jeannie has a startling realization that rearranges her perspective on everything she’s told us. “I used Jeanne as a metaphor,” she admits, echoing Bouillier and Palm before her, “as a means to understand my dad’s grief, as a means to understand who he was, as a means to understand how I should grieve. I don’t know how to grieve.” And then, in five quick words, Vanasco flips the assumptions underlying her entire project: “Jeanne was a real girl,” she writes, which is to say: not a symbol, not mere material. This is an essential realization, a way out of both madness and literary narcissism, and yet, no matter how real Jeanne was, the act of writing reduces her. Like my ex-wife, Jeanne may be “real,” but the second you put her on the page, she cannot help but become a metaphor. With this, every memoirist must reckon.