Studies have shown that reading fiction improves our sense of empathy (see Scientific American). Reading fiction, I believe, also hones our critical faculty. We know what’s before us is “made up”, somebody’s creation, so we easily tend to point out strengths and weaknesses – in plot and prose and style and structure.
But memoir reading is different. Here, you just listen, quietly, humbly. At the most, you can deem the language clumsy but you can’t find fault with the actions played out, the thoughts expressed. The reality of it all silences you up in a beautiful way.
Three days ago, I finished My Lovely Wife: A Memoir of Madness and Hope (also titled My Lovely Wife in the Psych Ward: A Memoir) by Mark Lukach (@marklukach), a San Francisco-based teacher and freelance writer. It is an extraordinary account of caregiving. Part of the story was first published as “Out of the Darkness” back in 2011 in the New York Times Modern Love column.
The first time Mark saw Giulia (@gsmile9) back in the year 2000 at Georgetown University, he shouted out “Buongiorno, Principessa!” like a buffoon. She was a radiant Italian girl with a perfect GPA and a firm ambition to be a marketing director and have three kids by the time she was thirty-five. He was more confused. First thinking of law, ultimately ending up with history.
After graduation, Giulia moved to Manhattan to work in fashion, and Mark to Baltimore to teach high school. Then at twenty-four, they got married and moved to San Francisco. In 2009, Giulia began to slide into psychosis, worrying excessively over trivial matters, taking hours and hours to type small emails to her boss. She had a breakdown. Only nominally Catholic, she would hear the voice of God, then the Devil. Soon, she became the Devil. After a difficult hospitalisation, she managed to recover.
Mark and Giulia had a son – Jonas. But when he was just five months old, she suffered another breakdown. Some time later, there was a third.
For Mark, it was exhausting – physically, emotionally, financially. With Giulia’s depression and suicidality, life with all its promises had dwindled to bare survival. Despite the stress and the anger, the relationship did not tear apart. It has continued to weather the storms.
We live in a time where everything is supposed to revolve around our freedoms, our wants. Our comforts are to be maximised, our pains obliterated. Even the ads we see are tailored around our personal data. We may choose and use what and whom we like, walk out of situations that do not go according to our expectations and plans. In such a culture, how do we adhere to vows? This heart-rending but hopeful story raises and answers these questions with the utmost honesty. It is indeed demanding and annoying to stand by and live with someone with an unpredictable and dangerous illness. But could we ever be at peace with a suffering partner left behind us? It is our commitments, in the end, that make us fully human.
Mark Lukach’s memoir is a must-read for those who have seen spouses or parents or siblings or children struggle like his wife (a page of Reader Stories has been put up on the author’s website). It will be valuable also to those who have begun to doubt in the power (and the possibility) of sacrificial love.
One day I came home from work and found Giulia sitting on the carpeted floor in our guest room, Goose sprawled next to her. I could instantly sense that something was wrong.
“Hey, honey, is everything okay?” I asked.
She didn’t say anything in response.
“Giulia? You okay?” I asked again.
“I guess.” She sighed. “It’s just – I can’t figure out what I’m going to do with the Vespa key.”
“What do you mean? What would you have to do with the Vespa key?”
“I mean, when I drive to the Golden Gate Bridge, I’ll probably take the Vespa…
When I park it, what should I do with the key? If I leave it in the scooter for you, someone will probably steal the scooter. But if I bring it with me, and they don’t find my body after I jump, you’ll lose the only key we have to the scooter.”
She looked me at pleadingly. “What am I supposed to do with the Vespa key?”
Giulia’s psychiatrist added lithium to her chemical cocktail…