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November 16, 2017

Book Notes - Gayle Brandeis "The Art of Misdiagnosis"

The Art of Misdiagnosis

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Previous contributors include Bret Easton Ellis, Kate Christensen, Lauren Groff, T.C. Boyle, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Jesmyn Ward, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

Gayle Brandeis's memoir The Art of Misdiagnosis is moving and eloquently told.

Kirkus wrote of the book:

"A uniquely graceful, gorgeously written and composed collage of grief, misunderstanding, love, and an attempt at familial closure through art and prose."

In her own words, here is Gayle Brandeis's Book Notes music playlist for her memoir The Art of Misdiagnosis:

"Get Me Away from Here, I'm Dying”, Belle & Sebastian

This is the song I associate most with my memoir—both because my oldest son sang it, accompanied by his guitar, the last night we saw my mother alive, and also because my essay with the same title was the first piece I ever published about my mom's suicide. I felt terrified and exposed when "Get Me Away from Here, I'm Dying” appeared on The Rumpus in 2012 but the response was so incredibly generous, it gave me courage to keep pushing forward with the memoir, a project I hadn't been sure I'd ever have the nerve to fully commit to.

"Kids”, MGMT

"Kids” was stuck in my head for days—probably weeks—after my mom's death. I'm not sure what triggered this, but the lines "Making momma so proud/But your voice is too loud” gave me chills—it perfectly encapsulates my relationship with my mom, who was indeed proud of me, but who also silenced me in many ways. Of course the lines "A baby is born/Crying out for attention” felt so resonant, too, since I had given birth a week before my mom took her own life.

For a long time, whenever I heard this song—and I heard it often, in restaurants, in stores, in waiting rooms—I would burst into tears. I sometimes wondered if my mom was making herself known through the song, if she was with me somehow each time it came on. I recently heard the first tooting notes of it on NPR, and they made the hair on my arms prickle; nearly eight years since her death, I still have a visceral reaction to the song.

"Don't Always Look at the Rain”, Howard Jones

A snippet of this song appears in the book, in a moment where my sister and I were finally starting to crawl out of our stints as "sick girls”, both of us having faked serious illness as teenagers:

"I had my Walkman clamped over my ears, my eyes closed, head tipped back against the plush burgundy seat. I was thinking about being in the backseat of another car, with my first serious boyfriend; we had parked behind a theological seminary the night before, Howard Jones crooning, ‘Don't always look at the rain . . .'

Elizabeth must have known. After weeks, months, years of barely touching, I could feel her reach across the gap between us. I could feel her hand hover over my face, could smell the corn-chip dust on her palm. She must have known I was thinking about a kiss. She laid two fingers across my lips—her index finger, her middle finger; she laid them lightly across my lips like she wanted to take me back to that other backseat.

I opened my eyes, startled. She lifted her fingers from my mouth and looked right at me. Her eyes healthy. Her eyes not shadowed by dark circles, her eyes not bloodshot, her eyelids not heavy and oily looking. Her healthy eyes looking into my healthy eyes. Both of us healthy together. Both of us healthy and looking at each other and not sure what to do next. It had been so long since we had known what to do.”

"Let's Go Crazy”, Prince

Prince was instrumental in helping me find my way back into my body after my time as "the sick girl” (I don't include Prince in the memoir, but did write about him in an early essay, "Purple Bananas”).

I am happy to forgive Prince the use of the word "crazy” but I found myself taking it (along with words like "madness”) out of my memoir, other than when such words were used in direct dialogue, because I didn't want to use language that carried any sort of stigma against mental illness. It's important for me to be thoughtful with my words, and I'm learning more all the time about how to do so. I wish I had stumbled upon the Suicide in the Media Twitter page (@suicidemediabot) and its creator, Dese'Rae L. Stage, sooner.

Des opened my eyes in a fresh way to words I've used regularly without second thought, helped me see that the phrase "commit suicide” is problematic because "commit” makes suicide sound criminal, pathological; in fact, the AP Style Guide began to urge reporters to avoid the phrase unless it's in a direct quote in 2015, instead choosing more objective phrases like "died by suicide”. The phrase thankfully only appears once in my memoir, but I wish I had known not to include it at all. "There are so many colorful things that happen in the subconscious when you hear the word ‘commit',” Des said when we spoke by phone. "How are you ever supposed to get people to understand that suicide is a human experience?” Words can help restore that humanity. And Prince, well—so can he. He definitely helped me restore my own humanity, helped me want to be a healthy, sexual being.

"Clair de Lune”, Claude Debussey

It took me a long time to be able to watch my mother's documentary, The Art of Misdiagnosis (source of my memoir's title), after her death. This song is the first to appear in the film and when I first heard it, the music mirrored the emotions that were swelling inside me, a rush of grief and fear and love. Those piano notes still feel so connected with my decision to transcribe the film and weave it in to my book.

"Tod und Verklärung {Death and Transfiguration}”, Richard Strauss

I only have one of my mom's paintings in my home, one titled "Death and Transfiguration”, named for Strauss' 1888-1889 "tone poem” which chronicles a man's journey from illness through death and beyond. The canvas is widely swathed with glossy black paint. Stenciled letters across the top of the piece, painted a mustardy yellow, represent the initials of my mom's seven dead siblings (HLASLDR); another letter, E, to the left of these letters, represents the love of my mom's life, her sister's married psychiatrist, the one who gave her sister electroshock treatments, the one who introduced her to opera, the one she fell in love with when she was 16 and was in a relationship with until his death ten years later. All of the letters, aside from this E, are connected by lines of red—bloodlines—to a G and B lower on the canvas. My initials, yes, but also her parents', Gertrude and Benjamin. It took me a while to realize that the G is not painted the same yellow as the rest of the letters—it shimmers with gold. Most of my mom's paintings make me cringe for one reason or another, but I like having this one around, even though it's steeped in pain and death. When she talks about this painting in her documentary, which also includes a bit of Strauss' composition, she says "I think it's crucial to pay attention to these spirits that came to me to tell this story and it's, I think it's the hour of the moment of my life to be able to do this.” I felt the same way about writing this memoir—not that spirits of dead family members told me to write it, but it felt crucial; it felt like "the hour of the moment of my life to be able to do this.”

"Lake Shore Drive”, The Innocence Mission

I heard this song for the first time recently when a friend shared it on Facebook, and I thought it captured grief so vividly (plus it's set in Chicago, where I was born, where my parents were both born, so it spoke to me in that way, too). These lyrics hit me in the gut, in the heart:

"I'm going down to Lake Shore Drive
I think I see your face
Now I'm looking for you every place
yes I, yes I, yes I am.
yes I, yes I, yes I am.”

I also was moved by these lines:

"In me will you shine,
shine, shine, will you shine.
shine, will you shine”

As I wrote this memoir, I started to feel my mom shine inside of me, similarly to how her own mother's initial shines golden from her painting. I came to appreciate my mom in a way that I didn't when she was alive, came to see what a remarkable woman she truly was. As complicated as our relationship had been, I'm grateful to claim a spark of her in me now; I hope to use its glimmer well.

Gayle Brandeis and The Art of Misdiagnosis links:

the author's website
the uthor's Wikipedia entry
excerpt from the book
video trailer for the book

Foreword review
Kirkus review

Fiction Advocate interview with the author
Largehearted Boy Book Notes playlist by the author for My Life with the Lincolns
Largehearted Boy Book Notes playlist by the author for Self Storage
The Rumpus interview with the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

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Book Notes (2015 - ) (authors create music playlists for their book)
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