Caught in the Mental Illness Vortex

Imagine Me Gone

By Adam Haslett

Adam Haslett’s generally good novel, especially so when Michael is on the scene, illustrates how the mental illness of one family member can influence and even alter the lives of the other family members. Those who have experienced the effects for themselves know just how true this is.

At the center of the vortex resides Michael, brother of Alec and Celia, son of John and Margaret. In the first part of the novel, readers meet the entire family when the children are young. John suffers from bouts of depression, which increase in severity, duration, and tolerability to the point where his once successful business ventures disintegrate when he can’t attend to them and finally to him taking his own life. This reveals nothing as it sets up the real story Haslett tells: how the teen and then adult children and Margaret cope with John’s death and with the increasingly unstable and manic Michael, who among other things suffers from severe anxiety disorder. The lead up to John’s death eats up nearly a third of the novel and if readers find the whole affair dragging and putting off engagement, well, it’s probably the opening, the set up for what’s to follow. It could have been considerably shorter, sorry to say.

Once past it, however, readers will find the novel thoroughly engrossing. Michael’s illness proves distracting and life altering to his brother and sister, and particularly so to Margaret for both emotional and financial reasons. Social work draws Celia, who eventually meets a man she can live with, one with his own set of challenges. Alec gets into political reporting and writing and can’t seem to form what he craves, a long lasting relationship with another man. And Margaret bears the brunt of Michael’s problems and in her efforts to help him nearly finds herself on the street. While Celia seems the logical person to take Michael in hand, and she does function as the point person for his long anxiety ridden phone calls, it’s Alec who shoulders the task of trying to help Michael face up to and resolve his illness, the result of which brings the family a sort of relief and stronger bond as a family.

As mentioned at the outset, most readers will find Michael the most captivating character. Some may even identify with certain aspects of his illness (though others who have lived with a person like Michael will bring their own personal understanding to the siblings and mother). As painted by Haslett, Michael, the younger version, can be a charismatic character. His riffs on music, a subject on which he is a walking catalog, will boggle, mesmerize, and as often mystify you. His avoidance techniques, particularly his fantastical sessions with his doctors and patient history forms, will crack you up, for this isn’t a novel without humor. So engaging will you find him, that you will find yourself hoping he will wake up and tackle his illness.

If you find the novel slow to ramp up in the beginning, preserve and Haslett will reward you with a revealing and emotional experience. w/c

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