cover image While You Were Out: An Intimate Family Portrait of Mental Illness in an Era of Silence

While You Were Out: An Intimate Family Portrait of Mental Illness in an Era of Silence

Meg Kissinger. Celadon, $30 (320p) ISBN 978-1-250-79377-5

In this searing debut memoir, Pulitzer finalist Kissinger documents how mental illness impacted her family and led her to spend more than 20 years reporting on mental health in America. Born in Illinois in 1957, Kissinger was the fourth of eight children raised by parents “who gobbled tranquilizers and drank themselves silly many nights.” Her mother, Jean, battled depression and anxiety, and was hospitalized several times during Kissinger’s childhood, while her father, Holmer, was prone to rages and violence. Two of Kissinger’s siblings—her older sister, Nancy, and younger brother, Danny—died by suicide in early adulthood. After highlighting these difficulties, Kissinger moves on to her career as a reporter of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and discusses how her family life encouraged her to cover gaps in America’s treatment of the mentally ill, particularly the 5.6% of adults with “serious and persistent mental illness.” She resists calling that treatment a “system,” because “very few things work together to help people with mental illness.” Throughout, Kissinger brings passion and immediacy to the subject, sharing her own story and those of her sources with bracing frankness. She’s particularly good at the complexities of talking about suicide, and how pressures against such conversations may have prevented her family from averting tragedy. As both a candid family portrait and a polemic against institutional neglect of people with mental illness, this delivers. Agent: Gail Ross, Ross Yoon Agency. (Sept.)

Correction: A previous version of this review inaccurately explained why the author’s mother was absent for periods of time during the author’s childhood.