Disease Cloaked in Ambition: Gorilla and the Bird by Zack McDermott

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Whether it’s Allison Britz, Abby Sher, and David Adam’s OCD, Jaime Lowe’s lithium journey, Ron Powers’s son’s schizophrenia, John Elder Robison’s Asperger’s or Daphne Merkin’s depression, important health memoirs are flooding the literary market. Now, a brave new first-person book of madness enhances the candid category, further redefining our modern concept of “crazy.”

Zack McDermott’s poetic and powerful debut, Gorilla and the Bird: A Memoir of Madness and a Mother’s Love (Little, Brown), chronicles the now-thirty-four-year-old lawyer’s battle to cope with his lifelong bipolar disorder. When the narrative begins, he’s a public defender at the Legal Aid Society in Manhattan, struggling to keep his mentally ill clients out of jail. Then the attorney ironically experiences the unthinkable: his own tortuous break from reality. For twenty-four-hours he prowls the East Village, convinced he’s starring in his own reality TV series, documented Truman Show-style by hidden cameras capturing the gritty details of his life. In a disturbing scene, McDermott stops to rap-battle with a group of performers on the corner of Houston and First, crashes a beer-league soccer game, and races on all-fours with a pack of mutts in a dog park. After a police confrontation inside an L-Train subway station, his next stop is a week-long stay at Bellevue’s psych ward, pumped full of enough medication to sedate a horse.

McDermott’s book reveals his transition from the courtroom to the asylum, which happens covertly, as if the disease had cloaked itself in ambition. Moonlighting as a standup comic, McDermott meets a producer friend who floats the idea of working with him on a pilot about his life and his invented character, Myles McD. Myles is a devil-may-care hipster who literally says or does anything—strips down to his underwear at a happy-hour work function, wears a mohawk to court, barks at the moon. There’s one big problem: the more McDermott allows Myles to take control, the more of Zack he’s forced to give up. Like a real-life nightmarish scene from Fight Club, Myles and Zack vie for power and control. The stakes are his own sanity. McDermott is at his best when describing his twisting descent into mental collapse, the reckless, nearly suicidal behavior, the cryptic messages he pens in red marker over the walls of his apartment (36 Chambers + 5 =), and the adamant belief that the cameras are trained on him—and always rolling.

Mental illness runs in McDermott’s family, the specter looming in the corner, ready to pounce. Its most recent victim had been McDermott’s Uncle Ed, whose schizophrenia and drug abuse had remanded him to state mental institutions for his entire adult life. McDermott spends much of the narrative trying to avoid Uncle Ed’s tragic fate and the social stigma that comes from being labeled “crazy,” whose effects he’d seen firsthand so often during his law career. McDermott’s compassion for those grouped under one dismissive heading—“crazy”—had been what originally stirred him to pursue a career in law in the first place: “I became a public defender to represent the dregs, the castoffs, the addicts, the Uncle Eddies,” McDermott writes. McDermott’s journey would take him dangerously close to the kind of lifetime institutionalization his own clients had been subjected to, as they spent much of their lives being taken in and churned out by the American justice and mental health systems.

Each of McDermott’s several relapses brings him closer to his worst fears: being branded “crazy” and becoming an inexorable feature of the “system” for the rest of his life, just like his clients. Doctors warn him that each psychotic break increases the likelihood of having the one he never recovers from. This acute anxiety worms through the book, constantly reminding McDermott he’s only one step from unthinkable tragedy. “It’s something I have, not something I had,” McDermott tells his fiancé Aurélie, during a touching moment when he first reveals his illness to her. He fears Aurélie will see him as a burden. Instead of honeymoons and bliss, he thinks she will envision wheelchairs, straightjackets, and long hospital stays spent trying to coax her husband out of a vegetative state. Instead, she sticks by him with a simple expression of love. “I care because it happened to you,” she tells him, “but I don’t care that you have it.”

The most significant relationship in the memoir is between McDermott and his mother Cindy, aka “the Bird,” who once nicknamed him “Gorilla” because of his tantrums and excessive body hair. The Bird coaxes the Gorilla through the worst times—his initial lockdown at Bellevue, his several relapses and his institutionalization at Osawatomie State Hospital, a place notorious for housing violent sex offenders. Gorilla and the Bird is so poignant, not only because of McDermott’s harrowing ordeals but because of his mother’s love, which guides him throughout. Like a calm sea captain piloting a skiff over choppy waves, Cindy provides the support and care McDermott needs to recover. When he returns to the Legal Aid Society after his first breakdown, he ducks into the bathroom and calls the Bird in a sobbing panic. “I shouldn’t be here,” he tells her. “Madman back in the building.” Cindy’s response, “You need Mama Gorilla to open up five cans of whoop ass on somebody?” makes him laugh and chill out. As his strongest advocate, Cindy shows the kind of unwavering support that enables McDermott to live with bipolar and use it as a source of inspiration.

Bipolar is a particularly insidious disorder. It can both aggrandize the sufferer’s self-conception and unrelentingly cripple it as well. Manic episodes can cycle for days, even weeks, and, if left untreated, the disease tends to worsen over time, producing more symptoms with worsening outcomes. With an estimated fifty-one million people worldwide suffering from the disease, McDermott’s book raises awareness for this affliction at a critical time. Gorilla and the Bird is an important resource for anyone impacted by the scope of bipolar disorder, as well as those who want to learn more about it. But the reader’s biggest takeaway from the memoir is the importance of a strong support network, which can often be the difference between relapse and recovery.

Through regulated medication, therapy, and family support, McDermott ultimately succeeds in keeping the disease’s effects consigned to the shadows, but as McDermott himself notes, they will always remain. It’s hard not to hope that McDermott’s social support will help keep the madman tucked away for good.

Scott McNeight is the author of the literary suspense novel Expiration Date (Black Opal Books, 2016). He is a freelance writer and MFA graduate from Western Connecticut State University, where he currently teaches in the thesis program. More from this author →