Alistair McHarg (left) and T McKinley
Writing Their Way Out
By Eils Lotozo
Over the two decades since novelist William Styron wrote about his plunge into despair in his 1990 book Darkness Visible, memoirs of depression and mental illness have become almost their own subgenre of literature. A few of the notable examples include Kay Redfield Jamison’s An Unquiet Mind; Susanna Kaysen’s Girl, Interrupted; Elyn R. Saks’ The Center Cannot Hold; and Andrew Solomon’s The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression. And there are dozens more.
Add to that list two books by Haverford alums that do what the best of the genre does, which is to take an unflinching look at a life unmoored by faulty brain chemistry and distorted patterns of thought, and chart the halting way to wholeness. For Alistair McHarg ’72and “T” McKinley ’84, writing down their lives began as an effort to heal, and became something more—a way to help.
When Edward “T” McKinley got the news that his troubled, secretive, older brother David had committed suicide by jumping from his boat into Long Island Sound with an anchor chained around his legs, McKinley found himself wondering, “Why hadn’t I killed myself as well?”
In Boy in the Ivy: The Inner Child of a Buried Man, McKinley (who goes by the nickname “T”) pursues that question, examining the roots of the depression that had shadowed him since his youth, and that later kept him disengaged from family life with his wife and two children. As he struggled with self-loathing and anger that was quick to trigger, McKinley’s detachment from those he loved most was born out of the conviction, he writes, that “I was protecting my own family from myself.” Though he maintained a functional façade during the day, working as an English teacher in a private school in Langley, Va., he spent most evenings numbing himself with beer, cigarettes, and escapes into fantasy, certain that if he were to tell anyone about his pain, “Bad Things could happen.” And so McKinley resolved: “Keep it in. Hide all traces. Life might be miserable, but at least I can be a man about it.”
Before his brother’s death in the summer of 2009, McKinley, who earned a master’s degree in folklore and spent six years working as a stand-up comic in Los Angeles, had been tinkering with a manuscript about his experience rehabbing a wreck of a house in the northern Virginia suburbs that had been previously occupied by mother and son alcoholics. “Something about going through the remains of this broken family obsessed me,” says McKinley, who had tried turning the material into a novel, and then a screenplay. “When David killed himself, I realized I had to start looking into my own darkness.”
By then, he had begun to see he was on a terrible trajectory. “I realized: If I don’t make a change, I will lose my job, drive my family away, and drink myself into a dangerous situation,” says McKinley, who found the title for his book (as well as its organizing metaphor) in a statue he unearthed in pieces from a derelict garden during the house renovation. After a move to his wife Gracia’s home state of Minnesota, where he took a job teaching English and drama at a boarding school, McKinley started therapy. He eventually found his way to the ManKind Project (motto: “Changing the world, one man at a time.”), enrolled in one of its New Warrior training programs, and helped start a father-son group based on its methods. He took a life-altering workshop with therapist Terry Real, author of I Don’t Want to Talk About It: Overcoming the Secret Legacy of Male Depression. Most importantly: He learned how to talk about his pain and how to ask for help.
Along the way, he writes in Boy in the Ivy, McKinley met countless men struggling in similar ways, and he discovered that “no matter how different we were in age, race, socio-economic backgrounds, education, and temperament, our problems essentially boiled down to the same things: childhood pain, especially around our relationship with our fathers; a sense of inadequacy and a fear of being exposed; disconnection from the closest relationships in our lives … ; [and] the core belief that we are not deserving of love, happiness or hope. ”
Since the book, which he self-published, came out in June, the perception that his story is a common one has only been reinforced, McKinley says. “I have a Facebook page going, and I’ve heard from people who have bought the book, and what I hear is: My brother is depressed. My uncle committed suicide. My nephew is a suicide survivor. It has blown me away how many families feature suicide and depression prominently.”
He’s also become keenly aware of how gravely depression affects men, who commit suicide at four times the rate of women. “Women tend to be more likely to reach out for help when they get to the end of the road,” says McKinley. “But men are supposed to ‘man up.’ It’s ‘Shut up about your pain, man. Nobody wants to hear about it.’ Also, men favor firearms.”
Changing core beliefs and letting go of the dark thoughts that once shadowed his days, remains an ongoing process, says McKinley. “Asking for help is incredibly hard and doing the work is incredibly hard. But if you are ready to say, ‘I choose to live,’ once you do that, all kinds of possibilities open up.”
McKinley reports that telling his story—which he does with humor and humility, and a brave willingness to reveal himself at his worst—has been a liberating experience. “At the first book signing I did, someone said to me, ‘What is it going to be like when you go back to work and walk into a room full of colleagues who have read your book, and who thought they knew you?’ I realized that what she was asking is: Are you ashamed of your story? But the process of telling it all, took the shame away. In a weird way, it’s kind of freeing. The writing allowed me to feel compassion for myself and for other people.”
In his memoir Invisible Driving, Alistair McHarg reveals what it’s like—what it’sreally like—to live with manic depression. A chronicle of a major manic episode that landed him in a mental institution, the book includes chapters written from the perspective of, and in the voice of, his manic self.
The manic McHarg is given to constant narration, wild word play, disjointed ideas, grandiose delusions, and weird schemes. (The book’s title refers to a favorite prank he concocted that allowed him to drive his car around Philadelphia while making it look as if no one were in the driver’s seat.) At first, all that manic energy made him feel powerful, he reports. “After a while, it was like having a demented television set in my brain I couldn’t turn off.”
“When I was manic,” writes McHarg, “I existed in a moral vacuum. If I felt like doing something, I did it. If I wanted something, I grabbed it. I was immersed in the moment, with no thought at all about the consequences … My actions might have been reckless, cruel, self-indulgent, and ripe with bitter aftermath. Made no difference to me. All I felt was the passionate intensity of the moment. I was completely free from inhibitions, free from fear, free from constraints. A monster had been loosed upon the landscape.”
The manic episode McHarg writes about in Invisible Driving wasn’t his first. That one occurred in 1970, while he was still a student at Haverford, and came on the heels of a summer spent following the “hashish trail” through Turkey, Iran, and Afghanistan, which led to an experiment with drug smuggling and a West German jail cell. McHarg’s famous father, the world-renowned landscape architect and author Ian McHarg (whose shadow loomed large over his son’s life), worked his State Department connections to get his son out, and on the younger McHarg’s return home the classic symptoms of mania appeared: “No sleep. Constant motion. Constant talking.” A massive dose of Thorazine brought him down and allowed him to return to school, but the psychiatrist who treated him offered no diagnosis. Recalls McHarg: “We reasoned that it was just an emotional disturbance. A freakish aberration.”
McHarg says his father showed signs of mania himself: “He lived in a manic state. He had four different jobs.” He recalls a psychiatrist at the University of Pennsylvania, where his father was a professor, telling the pioneer of environmental urban planning, “You are the only manic depressive I ever met who is manic all the time.”
Years passed before McHarg, who’d gone on to become an advertising copywriter, experienced his second manic episode—precipitated by a painful divorce—and received an official diagnosis of manic depression, also known as bipolar disorder. “That was a season in Hell,” writes McHarg, who was living then in the Philadelphia suburbs. “I was fired from jobs, found new ones, got fired from them too, all thanks to the illness.” But it was his third bout with full-blown mania, which came in 1989, after he’d finally reestablished his life and successfully fought for partial custody of his young daughter, that he focuses on in the book. That episode left him jobless, homeless, and, after he punched a police officer, confined to a psychiatric facility. “The sadness and the pain in a mental hospital is like no other place in the world,” he says.
Invisible Driving was a long time in gestation, says McHarg, who has remarried and now lives in rural New Hampshire, where he works as a freelance copywriter. “What had happened was so otherworldly, I thought if don’t write this down right now I won’t believe it. When I started, I was like Columbus going to sea. I really did start writing just to discover who I was, and why I responded to the illness the way I did, and what my demons were. But in order to expose those demons, I had to expose myself—warts and all—and that was kind of embarrassing at first. But I realized that was the cost of doing business if I really wanted to expose this illness—to really pull back the curtain on the exciting parts, the horribly scary parts, the damaging parts.” (After going through several literary agents and many re-writes, and seeing deals with publishers fall through, he decided to self-publish in 2007.)
Writing the book changed his relationship with his illness, says McHarg. “I won’t say I mastered it, and it’s taken years of therapy and years of work, but I did get the upper hand on it.” Experience is also something that helps, he says, “When you first start having manic episodes, you say, ‘I’ve got it all under control.’ But when you have a few under your belt, you are more willing to listen to other people, when they say to you, ‘I think you are acting a little weird. I think it would be a good idea to take a few days off and see a doctor.’ It takes time, but after a while you have a network of people, and you start to listen to them very carefully and take their advice.”
The publication of Invisible Driving—in which McHarg describes his ordeal with a surprising amount of humor—also brought him a satisfying new arena as a writer. Since 2011, he has been writing a weekly humor blog called Funny in the Head for the consumer mental-health website A Healthy Place. McHarg’s irreverent blog offers tongue-in-cheek advice and instruction (“Mental Health Terminology Demystified,” “What NOT to Say to a Mentally Ill Person”), or finds absurd humor in the news and in cultural trends (“Practical Tips For A Mentally Healthy Government Shutdown,” “Undead Face Stigma When Seeking Out Mental Health Care,” “Scientists Believe Neanderthals First To Be Depressed.”)
Beyond the delight he finds in getting a laugh, the column is also a way for McHarg to shake up social attitudes. “The stigma of mental illness is a subject that is quite close to my heart,” he says. “People are so terrified of mental illness. People marginalize you. They treat you like you have two heads. It’s almost like the last minority group. Things seem to have gotten better around race, gender, religion, sexual preference, but it’s still OK to make fun of crazy people.”
Wrestling with mental illness, says McHarg, has given him character and strength, and a level of empathy he would not have had otherwise. “I know it sounds kind of glib, but I see it now as a gift. It gave me the courage to be an adult, it turned me into a real writer, and it made me a nicer person.
“People frequently think in terms of making a big impact—doing something that will change the world. That’s great, and I would not discount that. But I really think the world changes one footstep at a time. Being open about your own illness, talking about it and not being ashamed of it, will probably do more to change things for the people that follow after you than anything else.”
This article originally appeared in the Fall 2013 issue of Haverford magazine.