Saturday 17 November 2018

Review: Circles around the sun: In search of a lost brother by Molly McCloskey

(Penguin, £14.99)

This is a true story. One Sunday in 1976, Mike McCloskey, a handsome graduate of Duke University, one of America's top colleges, strolled naked through his small hometown in Oregon. His strange behaviour was no isolated event. His bewildered mother Nita had grown accustomed to answering her door and finding him covered in sores and lice after months of drifting who knows where.

Mike, still alive, is now living in sheltered housing. He has schizophrenia and there is little hope that he will recover. He is "the most lonesome person I have ever known", we are told on the first page of Molly McCloskey's searing account of her clever brother's mental decline.

Molly is American by birth but Ireland has been her home since 1989, relieved by sojourns in Africa, Kosovo and Paris. She has published a novel, Protection, and won the RTÉ/Francis MacManus short-story award. This memoir struggles to come to terms with the way Mike's illness impacted on the family.

He wasn't always troubled. Sure, he was sensitive and given to bouts of introspection, but childhood betrayed no sign of what early adulthood would unleash.

A series of black-and-white photographs reveal a sweet blonde boy growing leggier. As a young adult he has movie-star looks.

Mike is the eldest of a large, successful, middle-class family. Molly is 14 years his junior, and their father was, in his day, a renowned basketball coach. The internet is still full of Jack McCloskey's successes. His fierce competitiveness transformed numerous down-at-heel teams, notably the Detroit Pistons; one of his aphorisms was that 'a winner is a loser who won't give up'.

As a young woman, Nita, Mike's mother, was a stunning, statuesque blonde and devoted mother. She even graces the cover of an early 1950s edition of Journal: The Magazine Women Believe In, with the radiantly angelic Mike draped over her shoulder. Perfection.

In Mike's fragmenting years, Nita was and still is the one constant. Her unconditional love illuminates his sorry tale. She praises his small accomplishments ("now he can find his way alone on the bus, now he showers without being told"), and is determinedly cheery when she visits him in sheltered housing.

There is a rare, uplifting honesty about this heartbreaking story. McCloskey's voice never wavers. No detail is held back, however condemnatory, painful or embarrassing. Yet the memoir is utterly without prurience or sentiment.

Stitched into Mike's comings and goings is Molly's own story: a tale of drinking and depression, of her terror that an "aimless rambling fear" will devour her.

It is Molly's good fortune (if any aspect of this tale can be said to be fortunate) that her mother retained an archive of family letters relating to the book's events. That and Molly's own meticulous research make this tale unique, but profoundly relevant to everyone coping with mental illness.

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