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Toll of madness, redemption of love – Michele Magwood reviews Zack McDermott’s Gorilla and the Bird

Published in the Sunday Times

Gorilla and the Bird: A Memoir of Madness and a Mother’s Love
*****
Zack McDermott, Piatkus, R315

This book is one of the gems of the year, the true story of a young man who suffers a catastrophic psychotic break and his sliding, slipping climb to normality.

Zack McDermott was a promising public defender in New York, an idealistic man raised working class in Wichita, Kansas, “a baloney sandwich throw from the trailer park”. His mother nicknamed him Gorilla as he was barrel-chested and hirsute. He calls her The Bird because of the small, avian movements she makes with her head. The Bird taught high-school English to the roughest students, gathering “any thug, gang-banger, ex-con or other members of the discard pile” around their dining-room table every afternoon for extra lessons.

It was understandable that he would want to become a lawyer defending “the dregs, the cast-offs, the addicts and the Uncle Eddies”. Uncle Eddie, it turns out, was institutionalised for schizophrenia.

So mental illness is in the family gene pool, but in Zack’s case it has manifested as Bipolar 1 disease.

Pitched straight into the gutting system in New York, he soon feels overwhelmed by the responsibility of his job and the hopelessness of his abject clients.

At the same time he is doing some fairly crazed stand-up comedy at night. He’s smoking dope, not sleeping, not eating. And one morning he steps out into the city believing he is being filmed, Truman-style for a real-life documentary. We want to avert our eyes as he careens through the day, until he ends up shirtless and shoeless on a subway platform, sobbing. From there he is transported by police to the pysch ward, deep in psychosis. Only the Bird can rescue him.

Seeing it from the inside, bipolar is utterly terrifying, and Zack’s struggle – he has more breakdowns – is deeply affecting. But the story belongs to the big-hearted Bird, too, for her determination to not let go of him. @michelemagwood

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