Reviewed by Hannah Straton
Gayle Brandeis is the author of Fruitflesh: Seeds of Inspiration for Women Who Write and the poetry collection: The Selfless Bliss of the Body, as well as the novels The Book of Dead Birds, Self Storage, Delta Girls, and My Life with the Lincolns. Gayle’s newest book, a memoir, The Art of Misdiagnosis: Surviving My Mother’s Suicide (Beacon Press, Nov. 2017) is a heart-wrenching exploration of grief, motherhood, illness, and wellness. She writes about both mental illness and physical illness with integrity and compassion.
The book opens in December 2009; Gayle is attempting to organize her deceased mother’s belongings—with her newborn strapped to her chest. Her son was born exactly one week before her mother committed suicide.
Gayle’s mother Arlene suffered from an undiagnosed psychotic disorder. Arlene was convinced her husband was hiding millions of dollars from her, that Middle-Eastern men followed her in white vans, that she was constantly being poisoned by agents sent by her husband. While Arlene psychologically decompensated, she continued work on a documentary meant to change hospital regulations for physical illnesses. In fact, the book The Art of Misdiagnosis takes its name from this documentary.
In the video project, Arlene used her abstract paintings from the 70s as an entryway to discuss two rare diseases: Ehlers-Danlos syndrome and Porphyria, diseases Arlene was convinced riddled her family tree. Her daughters spent extensive time in the hospital as children, and were diagnosed with everything from eating disorders to Crohn’s disease. Ehlers-Danlos syndrome and Porphyria were possible diagnoses that became crusades for Arlene and, at times, her sick daughters. Arlene herself took the test for Porphyria at one point, but refused to be evaluated for a mental illness even as she grew more and more delusional.
The Art of Misdiagnosis does not flinch from the tangled web of psychosis. The book itself is a tangled web—the form working to illuminate the subject matter. Gayle tells the story in a mixed form, with snippets of Arlene’s documentary, written correspondence during her life, narrative chapters set as flashbacks, and letters addressed to Arlene from her daughters after her death.
At times, this book hit too close to home for me and I would have to put it down to cry and take in a deep breath. My sister has a possible Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome diagnosis, and I have a psychotic component to my Bipolar Disorder. As a teenager, I attempted suicide by hanging. In college, after another suicide attempt, I was saved by electro-convulsive therapy—the same treatment that marred Gayle’s maternal aunt’s life.
When I began this book, I braced for anger. Instead, I found love and compassion. Gayle Brandeis’s The Art of Misdiagnosis: Surviving my Mother’s Suicide is a book for the well, the unwell, and the confused.