Alison Failure

Painting by my great-great aunt Alma

From my earliest memories I knew that my grandmother’s sister Edith had killed herself, because Grandma told me so as if it were the most ordinary, boring fact in the world. Everyone told me not to believe Great-Aunt Emma’s stories. It was when I was in my teens that Grandma started telling me Emma’s thrilling, convoluted stories were results of her paranoia.

I had always been told Great-Aunt Lucy died of a brain aneurism until I was told she died from complications of a fall while in a hospital for exhaustion. Of Grandma’s aunt Alma, I only heard rustles and rumors of her existence. She wanted to paint. She was hidden away. Eventually I learned she spent the rest of her life in state hospitals and a sanitarium after a suicide attempt. (The painting above is one of hers.)

Alison Failure is about what I found when I went looking to make stories – and meaning – out of these ordinary, plain facts.

My grandma and the stories she told me are at the heart of this memoir cutting back and forth between sections where I am in a hospital myself being treated for complex post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and bipolar.

This history of mental illness in my family is an almost 90 year history with strong evidence that it goes back further. Despite the devastation wracked on my family I’m in awe of the ways these women, my relations, stayed who they were even in sickness.

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