Interview by Leslie Lindsay
A razor-sharp tale of one American family ravaged by the devastating effects of mental illness, alcoholism, and suicide.
Meet the Kissingers. They’re your all-American family living on the North Shore of Chicago in the 1960s through 1990s, except they have one big secret, and one big family: nearly a third of eight children are affected by mental illness, two died by suicide. Welcome home to While You Were Out: An Intimate Family Portrait of Mental Illness in an Era of Silence by award-winning investigative journalist Meg Kissinger (Celadon, September, 2023), who has spent more than two decades traveling across the country to report on America’s mental health system.
Meet Holmer and Jean, their stunning five daughters and three equally handsome sons on the red-bricked leafy street of Greenwood of Wilmette, Illinois, a well-to-do Chicago suburb. They are cheeky, possessing a dark, biting sense of humor.
Before Jean and Holmer marry in 1951, Jean wanted out. The invitations had already been mailed. What would provoke Jean to want to call off the wedding? Was she pregnant? No. Worse. She didn’t want to tell her fiancé the truth: that she was being treated for depression, by a psychiatrist, no less. She had ‘spells,’ as she described them, ‘the air felt thick…it’s hard to even move.’ She was fearful of saddling Holmer with this…inconvenience. He took the news silently, stoically. They were married anyway, in a large Catholic ceremony where the organist serenaded them to Bach, Vivaldi, and Brahms.
And soon, babies are born, one right after another, or so it seems, beginning just ten months after the wedding. But not to worry, Jean seems to have it all under control. Holmer is making good money selling advertising space featuring medication that would calm the nerves of harried housewives, but he travels extensively, to New York, leaving Jean alone with the children. On the weekends, she and Holmer are glamming it up at the Michigan Shores Club sipping martinis and money never seems to be a problem. They have a housekeeper and someone to come in and do the ironing. The children are in swim clubs and enrolled in camps. They spend summer days on the shores of Lake Michigan, or are barreling down ski slopes in Colorado. Here, the Kissingers are a golden couple raising a very large, boisterous, picture-perfect family.
What happens behind closed doors is another story: sudden shocking violence and aggression, breakdowns, a heavily medicated mother hospitalized for depression and anxiety, children in trouble with the law, and more. By the end of the 1970s, two of the eight Kissinger girls have experienced a mental breakdown and are diagnosed with depression or anxiety or bipolar or schizophrenia, it’s really hard to tell. The other six children standby, helpless, terrified, and most of all: will it happen to them, too?
But there’s one unspoken rule in this family: never talk about it. To anyone.
At the heart of While You Were Out is love and devotion. It’s about how one family can shatter and rebuild. The tone of While You Were Out is infused with sympathy and hope. Kissinger does a remarkable job of taking a very large amount of data–hospital records, interviews, phone calls, scientific research, historical research, medicine, and funneling it into a gorgeous, cohesive whole.
This is a compassionate story, one which begins as a personal story of one family, then becomes an invitation—a desperate cry—for understanding, an openness to seek help for mental illness. It’s challenging tale, devastating, too. But there’s marvel and awe in these pages.
While You Were Out is gorgeous reportage, a journalistic feat of epic proportions. In Kissinger’s hands we experience a captivating and moving account of mental illness, not just an isolated case, but a broader, more expansive view that certainly will inject hope, resilience, and a call to action.
It’s an October day as Meg Kissinger and I discuss things over email. I marvel at the vibrancy in death as the leaves change against the stark sky. It reminds me that there is beauty in decay, that we—not just me and Meg—but all of us, may have more in common than meets the eye.
Leslie Lindsay: Meg, it’s a delight to speak with you about WHILE YOU WERE OUT. Thank you for taking the time. I want to start with the title. Of course, it reminds me of the pink slips we used to write phone messages on, back when we had corded phones and voice mail didn’t exist. The phrase comes up at least once in a specific scene in the book, but I’m curious how you see that phrase representing the book as a whole?
Meg Kissinger: First of all, Leslie, thanks for this generous introduction and for the opportunity to talk about my book. Indeed, the title comes from one of those little pink slips that people used to stuff in your office mailbox. That’s exactly how I found out that my grandmother was dead. My mom called the switchboard at the dorm where I was living freshman year of college and left those two little words: “Grandma died.” Boom. That was it. I mean, I didn’t think she’d send a grief counselor but, come on! It dawned on me that that was the perfect metaphor to explain how we Kissingers dealt with some heavy life events. Shorthand. No long discussions. Move right along. The problem is, when someone is suffering from mental illness, you need to be present for them. Take time. Let the conversations roll along. You need to be IN, not OUT.
LL: As I read, I was struck by many similarities we share, even though decades separate us in age. My mother died by suicide in 2015 following a long struggle with her mental health, which began in earnest as she neared her thirtieth birthday. You and I both grew up in the Midwest, me in Missouri, you in Illinois. Your sister, Patty, became a nurse. She even volunteered at a suicide crisis line (same here, on both accounts). I was a Big Sister with Big Brother/Big Sisters. And once, I thought about becoming a journalist. We’ve both experienced trauma, and I think that’s what I am getting at. Trauma and mental illness are a great unifier. If things aren’t given space to grieve, then trauma ensues. It’s not so much death that haunts, but unresolved grief. Your family had this unspoken rule: don’t talk about it. Is it ironic that I’d like you to expand on that, how common mental illness is and the stigma?
MK: No doubt I was drawn to writing about mental illness because of my family circumstances. The agony of mental illness was all around me but I didn’t know how to talk about it. We didn’t have the language for it. On the night my sister Nancy died, our father called us all into the living room and said, in no uncertain terms, “If anyone asks, this was an accident.” He wasn’t trying to be mean. He was scared and embarrassed. This was 1978 and the Catholic Church was unequivocal. Suicide was a mortal sin. My father was worried about the very real possibility that our parish priest would not allow us to have a funeral for Nancy or to bury her in our family cemetery plot. So, I, too learned to keep my trap shut.
But, I was so curious about the illness that killed her and, eventually, my little brother, Danny. Being a newspaper reporter gave me the perfect opportunity to explore the questions I was too scared to ask at home. It was easier to ask strangers how it felt to have depression or be anxious and confused than it was to talk to the people I loved and cared most about in this world. And I learned a great deal from the people I covered. I was lucky enough to work at a newspaper that let me go full tilt on these stories for more than 25 years. Eventually, I could speak with authority about how the system fails those who struggle time and again. I knew this as a daughter and a sister and also as a journalist.
This is the biggest thing I learned: We talk a lot about the stigma of mental illness but it’s more accurate and effective to use word “discrimination.” Because that’s really what we are dealing with: society treating people with illness that affect their thinking in a lesser way than those with other illnesses. We deny them medical care, choose not to hire them or rent apartments to them. We assume they are dangerous and that their illnesses are moral failures or the results of poor parenting.
LL: When my mother died by suicide, I felt much like you when Nancy died. You write, “My whole body started to relax so I could feel the tension releasing from every muscle from the top of my head down to my toes.’ You felt light, free. While this seemed a strange, even callous response, it was accurate; it was complex. Can you take us into that moment, please?
MK: I had such a hard time confessing that. I’d never stopped to think about why my sister dying felt so liberating until I sat down to write this book more than 40 years later. I remember sitting in that overstuffed chair in her room on the night that she died and staring at her bed. I could see the dent in her pillow where her head had been just hours earlier and thinking: she’s gone! Forever. Thank God!!! What an awful thing to admit! But, yes, it was true. We had to be so vigilant for so long – worrying about her lashing out, fearing that we’d be the one to find her dead. We spent so many years witnessing her suffering. And, now: Poof! All gone!!! It was like all the adrenaline that was there for so many years was suddenly not necessary and it just drained from my veins. Now that I think about it, it’s a completely understandable human reaction. It just doesn’t make for a very tidy victim narrative. I’ve heard from a lot of people who told me that they felt the same way when someone they loved died after a long, excruciating illness.
LL: Your sister, Mary Kay, made a comment along the lines of, ‘How do we know [Nancy’s] not really on her way to join a rock band in California?’ following her death by suicide. No one saw her body, with the exception of Holmer, your father. It all seemed surreal. That feeling is fairly common, I believe, when our senses are dulled—or in this case—refused. You didn’t see Nancy after she died, she just wasn’t. Talking about it was out-of-the-question.
MK: Sudden death does that to you. Your brain hasn’t had a chance to catch up with the facts. So, you scramble to make sense of it. There’s a reason why funeral rites used to always include a viewing of the body. It helps you process that the person is really gone. Here is their body and they are not breathing or moving. That opportunity wasn’t available to us. Nancy’s poor body was too banged up. So your imagination tries to fill in the blanks. For the record, no rock band would ever include Nancy. She was a terrible singer.
LL: When a similar fate happens to your brother Danny, nineteen years later, things have changed with the Catholic Church and their views on suicide. The ‘rules’ had softened in their stance on funeral Masses and burials for people who died by suicide, leaving up to the bishop to decide. But this opened another concern: was the Kissinger family somehow cursed? Two deaths by suicide. Both of your parents were alcoholics, one (your mother) suffered from depression and anxiety and another (your father) from bipolar. Did you worry? Was it the case of nature versus nurture? Could this have been the impetus for writing about your family?
MK: Did I worry? Hell, yes, I worried. Every minute of every day. I figured we were all sitting ducks. We still don’t know how hereditary mental illness is and, of course, there are no cures, or, really, much effective treatment. At the same time, I didn’t know how much of an outlier our family was. We were just our family. I didn’t know any different. I grew up in a place and a time with lots of big Catholic families. Every family had their share of heartbreak and sorrow. We just didn’t talk about it.
I can see now that we had more than our share of crippling mental illness. But we also had above average monkeyshines, shenanigans, humor and devotion. Also, love. Lots and lots of love. Our parents were very warm, loving people and so are all of us. So, while we were tragic in many senses, we were also to be envied in a way. People tell me all the time that they wish they had been in our family. I love that! Besides, we have a few openings.
LL: One thing I love about this book—and you in particular—is how determined you are to write about this. You wrote a piece for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s Sunday magazine about your sister, Nancy’s death. No one was writing confessionals about suicide in 1987, but you did. Your father didn’t like it. Your mother supported you, ‘She has to write it, Bill, it’s how she makes sense of it.’ I find that excruciatingly wise, particularly coming from her. Can you speak into that, please? And how did you feel after it was out in the open?
MK: I saw how my parents drew strength from telling their own stories at the Alcoholic Anonymous meetings. My dad was a total ham and the ultimate extravert. He was famous around our parish as a lovable nut. But my mother was quiet, shy even. Still, she knew how telling the truth can set you free. It’s kind of a contradiction. Our family did not talk to each other about how we felt about all the chaos and crippling illness around us. But, week after week, my parents would go off to their AA meetings and tell total strangers the most intimate details of their lives.
With this book, I take that a step further and initiate these conversations with my siblings that we never had, then share that with the world in hopes of making peace with our past.
LL: Why not stop there, with that one story in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel?
MK: I needed to pull back all the layers. That’s impossible to do in a single newspaper article. Writing a book gave me the time and space I needed to provide the nuance that is necessary to make sense.
LL: You share in While You Were Out, “In headlines and news copy, we call them ‘the mentally ill.’ In truth, they are mothers and fathers, out brothers and sisters. They are us.”
They are us. That statement breaks me wide open.
We are writers. Daughters. Sisters. We are trying to make a difference by bringing serious and persistent mental illness to light, for numerous reasons. One, it’s a public health issue. It’s also an intimate, family issue. We are all affected, not just the person with the diagnosis. Mental illness affects how an individual receives healthcare (or doesn’t), their housing, and career. What more can we do, aside from listening, and sharing our stories? What do you think While You Were Out might do for the future of mental illness?
MK:I wrote this book to show that even the funniest, cutest, most privileged of families can be devastated by mental illness. It does not discriminate. Telling our stories is HUGE. We all need to find the courage and humility to admit when we are hurting and weak. We need to know how to ask for help. I think that is one of the most under-rated human qualities. My older brother Jake lives in a group home for people with severe mental illness. He is often nearly paralyzed by his depression. But he has learned over the years how to have the courage and strength to say when he is in need of our help. It’s a superpower I wish we all had. I dream of the day that people with mental illness take a page from the playbook of those with AIDS – to stand up and say I am dying of this disease and, damn it, our society needs to pour all possible resources in a cure. We need to demand better care.
That’s what I hope readers will take away from this book. We are all human. We are frail at times and strong at other times. Learn to help one another. Be there for each other. Listen. Don’t judge. Be grateful. Have a big heart. Love.
If we can do that, we can save a LOT of lives.
LL: Meg, thank you. This was so eye-opening and I appreciate your vulnerability. Is there anything I should have asked, but may have forgotten? Or, something you’d like to ask me?
MK: I loved your questions, Leslie. I would ask you this: Having lost your mom to suicide, what do you do to find the strength to avoid that same fate? What have you learned from your mother that is helping you and can help others?
LL: This is such an important question, and one I am happy to address, Meg. My mother taught me a lot of things—how to create beauty, for one; she was an interior decorator and wildly artistic. But she was complicated and often unkind. This I witnessed from a child’s eye. I didn’t like how she snapped at cashiers or complained relentlessly. It bothered me that she wasn’t ‘like the other moms.’ What did I do? The opposite. I made a concerted effort to be kind, stay away from drugs and alcohol and nicotine, volunteer, look for the best in situations. It would have been easy to go ‘off-the-rails’ given my family of origin. What I wanted was stability, so I created it myself.
Although my inclination was to be artistic, like my mother, I ventured into science and medicine and became a child/adolescent psychiatric nurse. But that all as to do with personality and even choice, but what I think you are getting at is the potential of having a genetic predisposition to mental illness. I get depressed and anxious like the best of us. I keep careful tabs on my mental health. My doctor is well-aware of my family history and is very supportive. I exercise and practice yoga regularly. When those dark days come, as expected, I know to pull back, take stock, something I encourage everyone to do.
Life is a careful balance. Don’t stop, just slow down.