A Review of Deborah A. Lott’s Don’t Go Crazy Without Me
April 30, 2021 § 3 Comments
By Claire Donohue Roof
Deborah A. Lott’s Don’t Go Crazy Without Me: A Tragicomic Memoir is the story of a young woman’s coming of age and how she separates her own identity from her family’s. She recalls comedic and painful situations from her young childhood to teenage years.
Her story starts in 1968, in California, when Lott is sixteen and in the waiting room of the UCLA Neuropsychiatric Institute. Her father is hospitalized and even though doctors haven’t pinpointed her father’s illness, he is treated with electroconvulsive therapy.
When a psychiatrist examines young Lott, he labels her as paranoid schizophrenic:
My mother came back and sat down in the waiting room next to me, her hazel eyes wet. After living with my father, my mother seemed so innocent, so taken off guard by what was happening to her family.
“What did you tell him?” she said. “What kind of crazy mishegoss did you tell him? Nobody understands how suggestible you are.”
My mother was right; the doctor had misdiagnosed me. The clarity of her gaze snapped me back into reality. The dissonance stopped. I re-entered my body. All I wanted at that moment was to be normal. Well, not ordinary-normal, of course, but special-normal.
From here, Lott shows how the damaged, eccentric father stays in his bathrobe most of the day, working from home with his wife in an insurance business.
Alliances form within the family. Lott’s two older brothers bond with their mother. Lott allies with the father. Even though the father brings both fear and joy, his outrageous behaviors and beliefs diminishes these fleeting pleasures. Themes of failing fathers, shame mixed with love, divided loyalties, and survivor guilt run through this book.
Members of this family all struggle for love and attention. The father asks his daughter to spy on her mother. When the father falls deeper into his mental breakdown, the mother recruits Lott as her ally and asks her to babysit him. All the while, the author worries she might inherit his mental illness.
I felt deeply for Lott, who is afraid and worried about her father and herself. When my father was eighteen years old, walking down a dark road, he was hit by a car and suffered a traumatic brain injury. The Navy patched him together and honorably discharged him. He wandered through many Catholic colleges using the G.I. Bill. My mother, a registered nurse, married him ten years after the accident. She’d learn of it only after their wedding, when my paternal grandmother explained what had happened. My mother would take my father to many doctors and help him finish his degree in English at Notre Dame College. While he could quote Shakespeare, he could not hold down a job. He would get depressed, stay at home in his blue pajamas and white robe, and fret. Finally, my mother made him check into the VA hospital in Indianapolis.
I was a daydreaming middle child, easily forgetting my lunch money or gloves. I remember going with my mother and siblings to visit my father in the hospital after he’d had electroconvulsive treatments. He smiled at us all not knowing who we were. Eventually, he never came home and divorced my mother. There were times I wondered, like Lott, would I become my father? My mother insisted I would not. She’d say, I had inherited his good traits.
Don’t’ Go Crazy Without Me is an earnest look at a misfit family struggling financially and emotionally in the 1950s and 1960s in California. Place and time weave through these eccentric characters’ lives. What makes us laugh in this book also makes us cry.
As Lott enters her teenage years, she pulls away from her father. She gains more independence, builds her own narrative, takes up her own causes. The Civil Rights Movement and the Vietnam War are both underway, and she sees a bigger world outside her family—an escape from her nightmares.
Eventually Lott chooses love over grief and loss, and, in the end, it redeems her.
Along the way, I realized Lott’s story not only echoes my own narrative with my father, but also raises questions. Readers, like me, might look back at their childhood and wonder, how did we become the adults we are today? How did Lott make her way to become a successful person…a writer? How does she connect with her siblings now that her parents are gone?
Lott led me through her journey with wit and forbearance. Her memories are vivid and distilled to a fine pitch. Lott’s beautifully rendered storytelling helped me understand my own father’s struggle for a place not just in the family, but in the world. Her ability to not only survive her childhood, but to come to terms with it is a triumph of hope. In spite of the narrator’s wounds from father’s issues and her family’s tangled relationships, she perseveres and finds ways to heal and move on.
I connected to the ways this narrator overcame her obstacles. I highly recommend this book for its honesty, its humor, and its bravery. It has enabled me to see a way to come to terms with my own father’s legacy.
Claire Donohue Roof is an assistant professor in English at Ivy Tech Community College in South Bend, Indiana. Her poetry has appeared in the Mockingheart Review, Common Ground Review, Pirene’s Fountain, and the Flint Hills Review. She is working on a memoir.