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David Lovelace’s family is different. And not just because his father is an eccentric pastor who keeps reptiles for pets and likes to expound from the pulpit on pop culture items like Rosemary’s Baby or Bob Dylan. David’s family is different from their neighbors, and many American families, because four of its five members suffer from bipolar disorder (manic depression).
David grows up watching his mother suffer through two postpartum depressions as well as fits of the “whim-whams”, episodes in which she becomes increasingly paranoid, withdrawn, and incapable of taking care of herself, let alone her three children and husband. And as David enters adolescence, his father enters into a series of deep depressions, where he secludes himself in his bedroom and ceases to interact with his family or the world.
Then, as David enters adulthood, manic depression claims him, too. His first bout of depression ends relatively smoothly and before he enters college, but it returns with a vengeance later and often preceded by exhausting fits of mania. As David struggles to maintain jobs, relationships, and his place in the world, he tries to distance himself more and more from his troubled family. His attempts at distance are both physical and emotional, taking him to South America, where he discovers that he cannot hide from his illness, or his family, for long.
Scattershot, David Lovelace’s memoir about his family’s battle with manic depression, manages to be both brutally honest and incredibly loving. He recounts a childhood marked by his parents’ spells of depression and mania, and then his own struggle with the disease, from a point of view that is unflinching and candid and yet full of compassion. Without making excuses, he examines the behavior that results from this strange neurological disease and comes to the conclusion that the life of a manic depressive is both blessed and ill-fated, but one that cannot be ignored or run away from.
David Lovelace is a writer, carpenter, and former owner of the Montague Bookmill, a bookstore near Amherst, Massachusetts. His poetry has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and has won mention in Patterson Review's Allen Ginsberg Award. Lovelace lives in western Massachusetts with his wife and children.
A CONVERSATION WITH DAVID LOVELACE Q. In the first chapter of Scattershot you write about a car ride with your father where he describes two different memoirs he intends to write or has written – and neither have anything to do with his bipolar disorder, which has shaped a large part of his life. What prompted you to write your own memoir about this disease? (And why wouldn’t poetry, which you write as well, suffice?)
Q. In the first chapter of Scattershot you write about a car ride with your father where he describes two different memoirs he intends to write or has written – and neither have anything to do with his bipolar disorder, which has shaped a large part of his life. What prompted you to write your own memoir about this disease? (And why wouldn’t poetry, which you write as well, suffice?)
Two or three weeks after the crisis that opens the book – my father’s break and my parents’ subsequent hospitalization – I wrote a really ferocious poem, four or five pages of raw description and manic rhythms distilling the experience. I was listening to a lot of Thelonius Monk at the time (his music is full of crazy, beautiful leaps) and it was called “Hearing Monk After Hospitals.” Anyway, I read it at an open mike I frequent and was really overcome, close to weeping when I finished. I mean my mother was out of intensive care by then but she was still close to death. My dad hadn’t recovered. So, I look up at a barroom of puzzled people – intelligent, well meaning poetry people and all of them had that quizzical, ‘that was pretty good but what does it mean’ face. Maybe the poem was opaque, maybe it was lousy, but it clearly didn’t pack the emotional punch I needed for a real catharsis. So, I went home wrote the first chapter, came back to the bar a month later and blew them out the back door. In a sense, I’d been dancing around the subject – my family’s disorder – for years, addressing it obliquely in my writing, using poetic end runs and whatnot. I realized I needed to confront it head on, in prose.
Q. Did you learn anything about yourself and/or your family by writing this book? Did you learn anything new about manic depression, or bipolar disorder, while writing it?
Much went unsaid in my family. No one in my family raised their voice; we never fought. If problems or issues were raised at dinner, they were most often abstract, even theological. We had plenty of questions for God, not much for each other. We didn’t discuss the illness as a family, even after 1986, when my dad, brother and I were hospitalized in short order; most of us took the pills and kept quiet. I ditched the medicine, denied the diagnosis and disappeared. My dad spiraled into depression, retreated to his room for years and we let it happen. We never confronted the illness, got pissed, shook it by the neck. It was shapeless, a ghost we refused to recognize, to believe. In writing SCATTERSHOT I acknowledged bipolar’s presence, gave it a body. Then I flipped it upside down and shook out its pockets.
All sorts of things fell out. After twenty years, my brother told me the details of his first break. My sister confided her fear of the disease, how difficult and alienating it was to be the only one unaffected. My father continued to deflect directly questions about bipolar disorder; my mom asked what the term meant. I harbored a great deal of anger toward my father as I began writing. I blamed him for the denial that allowed him to throw out his lithium, my mother’s lithium, the decision that led inexorably to their hospitalizations, my mother’s near death. Being bipolar myself, I knew that deep down I could understand what led to that decision, I could forgive him for it, forgive the disease. It took three hundred pages to get there.
In the end I learned to accept the illness, to own it. I’m proud of the lessons it’s taught me, the wild range of experience it’s provided. I can’t say I’ve embraced my illness – it’s more of an awkward hug – but I’ve leaned to own it, grow from it. I’m not a victim. My diagnosis doesn’t define me; it’s a small part of who I am. It’s the focus of this memoir, of course, and had a great impact on who I’ve become, but I’m fortunate because for me the disorder is easily managed. I acknowledge it each evening when I take my lithium before bed. And then I get up and get on with my life.
Q. At the end of the book, you thank your family for being supportive of this project. Has your father read the book, or your mother? What about your brother and sister? What has been their reaction to its publication?
It wasn’t very difficult for me to ‘come out’, to write about my experience with the disease. I’m proud of my war stories, of surviving. But it was incredibly difficult to write about my family’s struggle, to draft them into my decision. I found it extremely hard to write about my mother’s suffering in particular. Frankly, I didn’t consider the implications when I wrote the first chapter. I was reacting on a very visceral level to the horror I’d just witnessed: my mother’s near death, my dad’s madness. Later, I tried to stuff the genie back into the bottle, to keep the book focused on me, my experience alone. But that was impossible, of course. In the end, I knew the only way to justify my presumption was to write about my family with love and empathy, to write as a fellow traveler, to move towards understanding and forgiveness. That was a tall order, of course, but I kept these goals foremost and they made for a better book.
My brother, sister and cousin Joanna were supportive from the start. I’d send them chapter drafts and they’d correct details, give me feedback. My sister, brother and I became much, much closer through this process. A lot of these stories remained quite painful for my mother, who was quite frail, and so I tried not to pry. But my father and I traded emails throughout. He provided a lot of anecdotes, but none directly related to bipolar. I kept emphasizing the book’s subject was our family’s struggle, and by the end he fell silent. I know it caused him anxiety, and I’m sorry for that. But when the book finally appeared, both my parents were quite proud – clipping articles, buying copies. Still, when I assured my mom that she didn’t have to read it she seemed relieved. And my dad? The book’s kicking around his apartment; I’ve seen it. I don’t know if he’s read it, but if he has and doesn’t want to engage, that’s fine. I understand.
Q. Do you have any other books – fiction, nonfiction, or poetry – in the works?
Sure. I’m currently working on “The Prodigal Calls Collect,” a sort of wise ass spiritual memoir about growing up a preacher’s kid. My father and I are having fun going back and forth on this. I’m pulling together a collection of my poems, tentatively entitled “Skimcoat” and plotting a screenplay – a comedy set at the Bookmill, my old bookshop.
- At the outset of the memoir, we are introduced to the most extreme and damaging effects of mania and depression – David’s mother, suffering from depression and what may be the onset of Parkinson’s, almost dies because Richard is manic and takes his wife off lithium and her other medications. Discuss the ways in which this episode serves as an appropriate prologue to the rest of the book – what does it foreshadow? How well does it establish the relationship between David and his parents?
- Which side does the book best support in the nature vs. nurture argument? While two of Betty Lee and Richard Lovelace’s three children are bipolar -- and therefore strong support for an argument that manic depression is an inherited disease – how much do you think environment played a part in triggering this disease? Consider Betty Lee and Richard’s respective childhood and early adulthood in particular, as well as how their mania and/or episodes of depression may have affected David and Jonathan’s psyches.
- Discuss the ways in which you believe religion was either helpful or detrimental to the stability – mentally, financially, socially -- of the Lovelace family.
- What might have other adult family members (cousins, Grandmére, etc.) or members of his congregation have found to be indicators or signs of manic depression? (In a related argument, do you think the two – bipolar disorder and one’s personality -- can be separated?) Does eccentricity equal or indicate mental illness?
- Similarly, discuss the ways in which Richard’s mania, and later David’s, fed their respective creativity. Because periods of mania short of hypomania could be very productive for each man, did you fault them for resisting medication, or for the drop into depression once they stopped being manic and became less productive? Discuss how well the author depicts the seductiveness of the manic episode, as well as how difficult it must have been to accept help knowing that it would result, most likely, in depression.
- The first and second time David has an episode of depression, in high school and then in college, he manages to pull himself out of it, albeit after doing some damage to his grades. It’s his mania that proves harder for David to conquer – whenever he has a manic episode, he needs medication in order to come down. Do you think this proves or disproves prevalent beliefs about depression and mania? Which appears to be more damaging, and why?
- In his early adulthood, David takes on a construction job (even though he has no experience running a construction job), botches it, and then when his dad has his first manic episode, runs off for months to Belize and then Guatemala. He writes about wanting distance from his family during this time in his life – did you sympathize with him? When you read about his brother’s breakdown, did you feel that David had abandoned his family or preserved his own sanity? (Or, perhaps, done a bit of both?)
- David’s return to the States is marked by his own manic episode. How much of this do you think was aggravated by travel and life among strangers – or do you think that he might have had an even worse break had he been around his family? (Specifically, his father and brother.) By this point, what did you think of the fact that David’s family members – almost all affected by bipolar disorder – were also responsible for each other? Because they can empathize with one another, do they make the best kind of guardians/protectors, or is it better to have someone free of the disorder in charge, like David’s cousin Joanna, or his sister, or his wife Roberta? Discuss the way David and his father alternately take care of one another, and the way Richard takes care of Betty Lee.
- How is David and Roberta’s’s life in New York City markedly different from any other time in his life? Was David’s level behavior – no depression, no mania – a testament to some aspect of this life in particular, or was it just chance?
- Similarly, consider David’s venture with the bookstore and his manic break after purposely stopping his lithium prescription. What do you think is most significant about this “capstone” episode in the book? What does it say about the role of medication in David’s life, about the role of his wife, and about the way his illness affects his professional and social life?
- How would you describe the tone of this book? Somber or uplifting, or a mixture of both? If it preaches, what sort of lessons does it preach? Similarly, how would you describe Lovelace’s writing style? Did you find his memoir accessible, even if you’d had no prior knowledge or experience of his family’s disease?
- How much did this book contribute to your understanding of manic depression and the extent to which it controls and affects a person’s life? What did you learn from the book that you find particularly significant?