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May 21, 2016

Imagine Me Gone

by Anne Paddock

So like a cripple I long for what others don’t notice they have:  ordinary meaning.

Imagine Me Gone is the very emotional story of a family living with mental illness during the later half of the 20th century (1960’s, 70’s. 80’s, and 90’s). The story begins in 1962 in London. A young American woman named Margaret is working at a library in the suburbs when she meets John – “a showman when he’s on, capable of great largesse” – at a a party. Eighteen months later, Margaret and John become engaged but after Margaret returns from visiting her family in Massachusetts over the holidays, she wonders whether they will marry after she learns that John is in a psychiatric hospital with what is described as an “imbalance.” Unsure of what this really means, Margaret remains committed to John and helps him return to his former self although in retrospect years later she realizes “we live among the dead until we join them.”

Imagine_Me_GoneJohn and Margaret marry and while living in London, have two children: Michael and Celia – when they decide to go to Massachusetts to fulfill a temporary job assignment for John’s firm. What started out as an 8-month visit turned into a permanent home by default with John losing his job, finding another, and eventually another. By this time, the couple’s third child, Alec is born and the family is complete, but restlessness is in the air.

Although John never sought treatment again for his “imbalance,” he was not well.  He hid his demons the best he could by focusing attention on his two younger children, Celia and Alec because he saw too much of himself in his eldest son, Michael who was different from the get go – a child who focused on music, literature, art, and parody to interpret and live in a world that didn’t know what to do with him.

Written by Adam Haslett, an American writer who graduated from Swarthmore with a B.A., Iowa Writer’s Workshop with an M.F.A., and Yale Law School with a J.D., Imagine Me Gone is the author’s third piece of published fiction. His first book was a collection of short stories entitled You Are Not A Stranger Here (a finalist for the National Book Award in 2002 and the Pulitzer Prize in 2003) followed by Union Atlantic (2010), a novel about characters during the financial crisis of 2008.

Told in alternating chapters from the perspective of the five family members: Margaret, John, Michael, Celia, and Alec, Imagine Me Gone begins with Alec as a young man (31 years old) leaving a cabin in Maine that he has been sharing the past month with his 37-year old brother, Michael. Desperate to find a phone to call his sister, Alec starts walking through snow to the village because something has happened to his brother, and he must speak to Celia. The reader does not learn what happened until the end of the book. In between is the story of their lives from their various viewpoints.

At times hilarious, Imagine Me Gone is also heartbreaking because as much as Margaret, John, Michael, Celia, and Alec love and care about each other, they also loathe and resent the responsibilities and inconveniences thrust upon them as they move through the various stages of their lives, watching Michael get sicker and sicker.

Mental illness is a common theme of the author’s work first showing up in several of his short stories (The Good Doctor, War’s End, The Volunteer, My Father’s Business) in You Are Not A Stranger Here. In Imagine Me Gone, the depth and magnitude of what mental illness does to a family – who never gives up hope – is revealed in heartbreaking detail.

But there is no killing the beast. Since I was a young man, it has hunted me. And it will hunt me until I am dead.

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