Monday, 18 July 2011

Circles around the Sun: In Search of a Lost Brother by Molly McCloskey

'If you saw a letter on the ground with an address and a stamp on it, what would you do?'
'I'd put it on the windowsill so it wouldn't blow away,' Mike says.
'If you were standing with a group of people at a bus stop, what would they be talking about?'
'Me,' Mike says.

When Molly McCloskey was a young girl her older brother Mike (by 14 years) started showing symptoms of schizophrenia. Using her mothers old letters and through interviews with her family and Mike's friends, Molly tries to piece together Mike's story.

Mike was born in 1950 in Philadelphia and was the eldest of six siblings. Growing up he was a quiet, sensitive, introverted child and a high achiever in both sports and in his academic studies. As a tall blonde teenager who happened to be on the school basketball team he never had any lack of either friends or girlfriends and when he achieved a scholarship to a good college it must have seemed like he had his future set. But within a couple of years Mike began to exhibit some strange behaviour and he was to spend most of his adult life heavily medicated and living in hospitals or care homes.

Schizophrenia is a subject matter that I know very little about. Occasionally someone with schizophrenia will show up in the news (often for the wrong reasons) but its not a illness I know anything about. My only exposure to the illness really are the odd portrayals on TV (normally soap characters).

The book is a relatively quick read for non-fiction because the author has largely written about the subjects and events that a reader would be interested in e.g. were there any signs when Mike was a child and what event did eventually lead to a diagnosis. The author interweaves her family story throughout which is relevant and helps to give a perspective from their point of view and how the illness affected them.

What I didn't find so relevant were the authors own personal problems with anxiety and depression in which large parts of the book are devoted to. My husband also read these sections and declared the descriptions of anxiety as 'spot on' and well written but I failed to see how this really related to Mike and I wondered if they were just filler. Thankfully the main subject matter was interesting enough for me to keep turning the pages.

But did I learn anything about schizophrenia? Well the subject is too complicated to list everything here but yes. The early symptoms which tend to show up in males in their late teens are not immediately obvious. When Mike started to become depressed in collage you cannot blame people for not suspecting schizophrenia (it would surely be the last thing people would think). The author did a very good job of describing the less known symptoms such as formal thought disorder, social withdrawal, sloppiness of dress/hygiene and lack of responsiveness all of which I knew nothing about.

But the most enlightening thing I learnt was that it is a very very complicated illness, there are many different forms and its mysterious even to the experts. Mike's symptoms and behaviour could very easily manifest very differently in someone else with the same illness and therefore the medication can also vary between patients.

With all this talk of syptoms and medication it is easy to forget about Mike himself. The book does very a good job of showing who mike was/is rather than treating him as a patient and it is evident here that that it is personal for the author.

The book is written in a not a too dissimilar way to The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks and I would recommend this to anyone who is interested in the subject yet wants to read about it from a more straightforward and human perceptive.

Posted by Jess


  1. Sounds interesting... although at this point in my life I could use more fictional escapism than real-life drama.

    (The author's problems with anxiety and depression are relevant because they may be related to schizophrenia. There is some overlapping of symptoms and, as you said in your review, the disorder can manifest differently in different individuals. These sorts of disorders can also run in families, which may or may not have been the point the author was trying to make.)

  2. This sounds like the sort of book I'd enjoy. I have read quite a few books with schizophrenic characters, but none of them have ever explained the condition to be properly. (perhaps becasue it is such a complcated issue?) Thanks for drawing it to my attention.