REVIEW: Don’t Go Crazy Without Me by Deborah Lott

Review by Laurel Miram

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cover of don't go crazy without me - old family photosAt some point in our growing up, we begin to untangle our identities from those of the adults around us and ask, “Who am I apart from you?” Deborah Lott’s Don’t Go Crazy Without Me (Red Hen Press, April 2020) examines the scars and treasures of her emotionally enmeshed relationship with her father, following their tandem legacy through and beyond the decisive moment she chose to step away from his tragedy and begin her own journey—toward independence, mental health, and recovery.

As a liberal Jewish family in the heart of a conservative Christian community, the Lotts were designated “other” and “different” from the start. Born with malformed hands and a flamboyant, irreverent personality that made fitting in even more improbable, Deborah’s father shunned societal norms, even as her mother struggled to rein her husband and his eccentricities into some form of publicly acceptable order. Gifted with a florid imagination and a flare for drama, prone to intense emotion and increasingly invested in her father’s incessant fears of contamination, illness, and death, Deborah, too, provoked her mother’s exasperation. Like her father, Deborah craved affection and warmth her mother was unable to give. Deborah’s father allied with his daughter against his wife, driving them further apart. His dysfunctional behavior also alienated his youngest son, Paul, who was frequently forced to defend his mother and himself, sometimes physically. The family fractured into two opposing camps.

Father and daughter grew closer—and his influence on her identity so pervasive—that it became difficult for her to distinguish “between what was inside my own head and what was in my father’s.” His hypochondriasis and paranoia became hers. As its title suggests, Don’t Go Crazy Without Me documents two people unnaturally bound up in one identity, a child so wholly tied and devoted to her father, so afraid of losing his love and favor, that she nearly lost herself to his paralyzing psychosis.

Alternating between compelling scenes from her childhood and present-day vignettes, Lott deftly traces the knotted intergenerational strands of trauma and emotional struggle that led her into a debilitating mental illness—and the courageous insight that brought her out of it—in a memoir that manages both disturbing and touching moments with equal delicacy, without sacrificing their power. Memories are presented unglossed and fairly balanced. Here and there a flash of melodrama breaks through, but this is the personality of the author peeking out at us, asking us to share her experience on her terms.

Some readers might expect a more impassioned indictment of her father’s offenses—of which there are many—but Lott chooses to sidestep judgment in order to safeguard the emotional stability she’s worked so hard to achieve. “…the truth is,” she writes in the Prologue, “I don’t want only clarity. I also want to slow down and relive the best glimmering moments, to wash the terror out of the bad parts, to get it all back—only better this time. To feel some kind of pure love again.”

Don’t Go Crazy Without Me is a fearless, fascinating story of self-discovery and reconciliation that seeks to understand rather than resolve, a moving portrayal of one woman’s determination to ask—and answer—her own questions about who she has been, and who she now chooses to be.

Laurel Miram’s work appears in SmokeLong Quarterly, Eastern Iowa Review, and OPEN: Journal of Arts & Letters, among other publications. She is a reader for The Lascaux Review and Witness Magazine. Her short prose has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize, Best American Essays, and the PEN/Robert J. Dau Short Story Prize for Emerging Writers.

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