"Angelhead" by Greg Bottoms

A memoirist tells the harrowing story of his teenage brother's decline into the unthinkable horror of schizophrenia -- but is that enough?

By Laura Morgan Green

Published November 28, 2000 8:00PM (EST)

"Angelhead" is Greg Bottoms' account of his older brother Michael's descent into acute paranoid schizophrenia during adolescence and young adulthood. Over the course of the narrative, before finally winding up in the psychiatric ward of a prison facility, Michael will suffer hallucinations, become homeless, be raped on more than one occasion, confess to one murder, try several times to kill members of his family and attempt suicide twice. In his delusional state, Michael believes that God is speaking to him, but God offers no redemption.

I am not giving anything away here, since Bottoms offers this catastrophic list barely two pages into his narrative -- fair warning that neither suspense nor hope drives the story. Bottoms' narrative belongs to the unsparing rather than the sentimental genre of trauma memoirs. Michael's family cannot cope with his increasing violence and delusions, and no heroic teachers or doctors or mental health professionals step in to save him or even offer effective advice. When he is finally locked away, the reader's primary emotion -- like that of his family -- is relief.

Michael's juggernaut of decline takes place against a background of middle-class suburbia, rendered here as a sinkhole of hidden disaffection. In a community of carefully mowed lawns, lovingly washed cars and high school football games, Bottoms' mother fields phone calls "from school, from neighbors, from the parents of girls her 14-year-old may have slept with." Bottoms himself seeks escape in pot, pills, alcohol and the more anomic forms of youth culture before he is even in his teens. The entire family sleeps with their bedroom doors locked against Michael's ranting insomnia and increasing rage.

Bottoms' prose is matter-of-fact, and he renders the infectious ugliness of Michael's condition in graphic detail. Yet if "Angelhead" is harrowing, it never becomes deeply affecting. The jacket identifies the book as a memoir -- Bottoms calls it "creative nonfiction" -- but it is a memoir in the 19th rather than the 20th century sense of the word: the author's remembrances of another person. That person is not someone most of us would choose to spend time with; Bottoms himself devoted years to forgetting he had such a brother. However tragically or unjustly, Michael is both defined and cut off from us by his disease. Bottoms cannot get fully inside his head, and we cannot learn anything from him.

Unfortunately, we get no closer to the people in the book -- particularly Bottoms' parents -- at whose greater complexity Bottoms occasionally hints, and whose very ordinariness gives them greater potential to move us. Proud of their own escape from the lower middle class, Bottoms' parents work constantly "to keep on top of their barely confinable debt," leaving their troubled children largely alone. Determined not to admit to the crumbling of their dream, they ignore Michael's decline to the point certainly of delusion and perhaps of outright negligence. Yet they are clearly well-intentioned people, overmastered by an unthinkable horror against which they must struggle without effective outside intervention. Bottoms describes them strikingly as "a team in crisis. They weren't so much a couple as two people pitted against an unconquerable foe, stuck with their family and their lives."

Such moments of sharp observation brighten "Angelhead," a competently written book that tells the story it means to tell lucidly and without anger. But it's hard to imagine what effect Bottoms wants his account to have on the reader. Himself a desperately voracious reader in college, Bottoms says, "I started to believe -- and I still believe -- that I could somehow save myself with a story, and even though I couldn't save anyone else, I could try to understand them, attempt to grant them at least that, and perhaps it is in this, this attempt to understand, that a person is truly saved." Michael is unlikely ever to be cognizant of his brother's attempt at understanding, but perhaps Bottoms hopes that others in extremity will find some terrible affirmation in seeing their own hell, or one similar to theirs, put into words.

In an author's note, Bottoms writes that he has aimed to "capture the experience of schizophrenia." In fact, "Angelhead" suffers from a belief abroad in literary culture that the truth of a story is its own justification, that to "capture an experience" is a good end in itself. The idea is wrong on both counts: A story need not be true to be valuable; conversely, not every accurately evoked experience conveys a valuable truth. Michael's interior remains impenetrable, his exterior repellent. It is Michael's parents, in the glimpses we get of their unheroic desires and their moral ambiguity, who come closest in this narrative to attaining the status of fully realized literary characters, rather than descriptive efforts. And for that reason it is their tragedy, rather than Michael's tortures, that is likely to affect and remain with the reader.

Laura Morgan Green

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