Certain memoirs are easily devoured, practically in one sitting, leaving the reader breathless. Such is the case with Meg Kissinger’s While You Were Out: An Intimate Family Portrait of Mental Illness in an Era of Silence. Like Robert Kolker’s Hidden Valley Road, it sheds light on the vise-like grip that mental illness can have on generation after generation. In this case, however, Kissinger—an investigative reporter and a Pulitzer Prize finalist—writes from an insider’s point of view, describing how mental illness ripped her family apart.
Born in 1957, Kissinger spent most of her childhood in Wilmette, Illinois, in a large, rollicking family whose zany anecdotes are at first reminiscent of Cheaper by the Dozen. The many scrapes, mishaps and family tales are entertaining and often poignant, such as Kissinger’s description of how much she enjoyed an eye doctor’s appointment because it afforded a great rarity: one-on-one time with her mom. Kissinger gradually ups the tension, noting that her mother was taking medication “for her dark thoughts” before she was married, and that throughout Kissinger’s childhood, her mother would disappear from time to time for hospitalizations that were neither discussed or explained. Kissinger explains her family’s situation in a nutshell: “Take two alcoholics—one with bipolar and the other with crippling anxiety—and let them have eight kids in twelve years: What could possibly go wrong?”
Plenty, of course. A number of Kissinger’s siblings began having difficulties in high school or college, especially her older sister, Nancy, who, at age 24, shortly after having her stomach pumped for taking too many tranquilizers, slipped out of the house and ended her life in front of a train. Kissinger’s father instructed his family to tell others that Nancy’s death was an accident. Kissinger recalls her devastated and stunned thoughts at the time: “More secrets, more lies, just like when my mother disappeared years earlier. Why couldn’t we just tell the damn truth? By hiding what really happened, we’d not only be dismissing Nancy’s suffering but fortifying the notion that her mental illness was a choice, one that we should all be ashamed of.”
In 1987, Kissinger wrote an essay for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel about Nancy’s suicide. “Meg needs to tell this story,” her mother told her horrified father. Indeed, she did—especially when, 19 years later, a similar family tragedy happened once again. Kissinger then spent 25 years traveling across the country to explore the state of mental health issues in families like hers.
While You Were Out is a spellbinding account of one woman’s experience living through family trauma and a thoughtful attempt to reckon with the past. Kissinger asks tough questions and freely admits her own regrets while pointing out systemic problems with no easy answers. Her best advice comes from a letter from one of her siblings, a piece of wisdom that became her mantra: Only love and understanding can conquer this disease.