While You Were Out: An Intimate Family Portrait of Mental Illness in an Era of Silence
While You Were Out, the title of Meg Kissinger’s masterful more than a memoir, has its literal meaning. But there is more to that than running an errand. While You Were Out also is a metaphor for a lost way of living a life buried in anger, shame, guilt, envy, and regret, a life blunted by drugs, alcohol, and mental illness. A life surrounded by others yet still all alone. A life that has yet to find the light that leads to understanding and love.
Kissinger was a finalist for a Pulitzer for investigative reporting; twice awarded the prestigious George Polk Award for investigative reporting and medical writing; received the Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award, and is without the wall space to accommodate her many other awards and accomplishments. In While You Were Out, she does what a great writer and journalist does to find meaning and (some) peace from a life of trauma and sorrow: Kissinger tells an utterly candid, yet loving, story of her troubled life and that of her family, while giving an intimate view of the arduous professional life of an investigative journalist.
This may read as rather abstract until you meet on the pages: Kissinger; her mother, suffering with severe, chronic melancholia and a dependence on tranquilizers and gin; her father, with bipolar disorder and alcoholism given to rageful and dismissive outbursts; and her seven other siblings, two who took their lives by suicide and others who were no stranger to mental illness.
To elude their shame, her parents told cover stories to hide the suicides. The children, witness their ongoing family agonies each burrowed into their foxholes, with no talk among them to understand the suicides and find comfort from one another. Yet remarkably, five (of course including Meg), went on to successful professional lives.
What makes for resilience in a person? To brave on and contribute, after a major trauma (like 9/11) or the trauma of childhood abuse, neglect, and loss. How much it takes to make a life living with a serious and persistent mental illness? It doesn’t happen unless there is support and hope. Faith and humor also come in handy. For the Kissingers that came late, but not too late.
Kissinger’s siblings, when she asked, unanimously and “without hesitation” endorsed her writing this book. The ghosts of their sorrowful lives would be written for them to read, as well as many others. But not to shame or blame. Instead, to honor the understanding and love needed for forgiveness—especially each one forgiving themself.
Kissinger’s has had a career as an investigative journalist reporting on the lives of people with serious mental disorders and the consequences of the neglect and indifference of the U.S. public mental health system. She takes us into the lives of chronically mentally ill people whom she came to know over years, some whose life was in shelters, encampments, and on the street.
These were severely mentally ill people who suffered all the more because of the failures of mental health in America. Her portraits of life in a state mental hospital will give you a frisson. Kissinger writes, and now teaches, that a journalist should “Identify the flaws . . . expose the culprits and the cover-up of their abuses, and to hold them accountable.” Not to “advocate” but to disrupt pretense and societal inhumanity, thereby creating the social significance needed for change.
A prolific writer, Kissinger’s long and extensive exposure to human pain took its toll. She began to feel averse to continuing as an investigative reporter exposing inhumanities and seeing her own family in her writing and reporting. Then “out of the blue” she was offered a visiting Professorship in Investigative Reporting at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism, no small thing from a university of such prominence. She could teach, rather than immerse herself in writing about the agonies of indifference and abuse that characterizes the lives of so many people with a serious and persistent mental disorder.
Kissinger continued to report when at the Journalism School, but she “turned the notebook on my family and me.” That notebook became this book. She divides the book into three sections. The first is the bleak and loving story of her family (and herself); the second is a clear and concise summary of mental health in America, with all its hopes and failed efforts; and the third, which she calls “Letting Go,” borrowing a line from Mary Oliver, one of this country’s most gifted poets.
“Letting Go” is suffused with hard won wisdom. It is about how we all can, but few do, find our “footing” to be able to achieve a life without self-reproach and shame. By finding the “light” that illuminates the way.
Kissinger’s first book on family, mental illness, and recovery catapults her into the pantheon of modern, nonfiction writers who dare to feel, think, and unabashedly portray the agony of mental disorders and the hope needed to find a path to a life of relationships, contribution, and self-respect.