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'Only More So': Mark Vonnegut's Battle With Bipolar

Recovering from a psychotic break is far from a guarantee. The famed novelist Kurt Vonnegut once wrote, metaphorically, of the challenges of mental illness: "Some people survived going over Niagara Falls in a barrel. Others didn't. The turbulence is really something." But it's his son, Mark Vonnegut, who has written most vividly and personally about surviving bipolar disorder, about returning to a reality that's been snapped. In a phrase, life takes on a new imperative: to be "normal with a vengeance."

Just Like Someone Without Mental Illness, Only More So -- Mark Vonnegut's exactingly titled second memoir -- is an honest, witty and vivid depiction of "normal" life in between interruptions of mental illness. It's about how much one can accomplish, while a history of insanity follows close behind. "Once you've been talked to by voices, it's not possible to go back to a world where talking voices is not possible," he writes. Instead, he couldn't shake the feeling that he was just trying to pass for normal, as if forgetting to tiptoe around the mental eggshells would let the voices return.

More than anything, Mark's bipolar illness gave him the desire to be useful, to make up for the time he spent feeling so utterly useless while hospitalized in his 20s. And useful he became -- after 19 rejections, young Vonnegut earned admission to Harvard Medical School and pursued a long and dedicated Boston-based pediatrics career. To the benefit of his readers, this endows him with a rare prerogative to lament the American medical system, or more accurately, the insurance regulations and cost-efficiency guidelines that make trying to practice medicine today like "long jumping with weights on your ankles."

Whereas Vonnegut's first memoir, The Eden Express, is a young man's artistic account of spiraling into psychosis amid the social tumult of the 1960s, Just like Someone Without Mental Illness is a vastly more readable, down-to-earth narrative. Wisdom tempers a zeal for political rebellion, and a sense of humor allows brazen self-reflection. He subsumes within these chapters a remarkable amount of his midlife experience, ranging from his around-the clock pediatric residency, alcohol dependence, returning bipolar illness that nearly launched him out a window, remarriage, and a life in the shadow of his father.

The late Kurt Vonnegut is an eccentric background character, and Mark's childhood memories of his not-yet-famous father are worth chasing through the pages for. Far from remembering him as the author of Cat's Cradle, Mark knows Kurt as the man throwing the chessboard across the room upon losing, dancing with his wife and a mop to the tango music in the aisles of Walmart, and adopting four children. It's always amusing to learn that one of the 20th century's most influential writers was once a terrible car salesman who couldn't get hired to teach English at Cape Cod Community College.

Coming from a man who was named Boston Magazine's "No. 1 Pediatrician" just as he was experiencing a fourth psychotic episode, Vonnegut's memoir is ultimately about how bipolar disorder can shape, but not define, a life. Just don't expect it to be normal.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Genevieve Wanucha