Sally Greenberg in 1996, a month before her manic attack. Oil on canvas, by John Dobbs, Sally's uncle.
Photo: Ben Goldstein/Studio D
On July 5, 1996, my daughter was struck mad. She was 15, and her crack-up marked a turning point in both our lives. "I feel like I'm traveling and traveling with nowhere to go back to," she said in a burst of lucidity while hurtling away toward some place I could not dream of or imagine. I wanted to grab her and bring her back, but there was no turning back. Suddenly every point of connection between us had vanished. It didn't seem possible. She had learned to speak from me; she had heard her first stories from me. Indelible experiences, I thought. And yet from one day to the next we had become strangers.

My first impulse was to blame myself. Predictably, I tried to tally up the mistakes I had made, what I had failed to provide her, but they weren't enough to explain what had happened. Nothing was. Briefly, I placed my hope in the doctors, then realized that, beyond the relatively narrow clinical fact of her symptoms, they knew little more about her condition than I did. The underlying mechanisms of psychosis, I would discover, are as shrouded in mystery as they have ever been. And while this left little immediate hope for a cure, it pointed to broader secrets.

It's something of a sacrilege nowadays to speak of insanity as anything but the chemical brain disease that on one level it is. But there were moments with my daughter when I had the distressed sense of being in the presence of a rare force of nature, like a great blizzard or flood: destructive, but in its way astounding too.

July 5. I wake up in our apartment on Bank Street, a top-floor tenement on one of the more stately blocks in Greenwich Village. The space next to me in the bed is empty: Pat has gone out early, down to her dance studio on Fulton Street, to balance the books, tie up loose ends. We have been married for two years, and our life together is still emerging from under the weight of the separate worlds each of us brought along.

What I brought, most palpably, was my teenage daughter, Sally, who, I'm a little surprised to discover, isn't home either. It's 8 a.m., and the day is already sticky and hot. Sun bakes through the welted tar roof less than three feet above her loft bed. The air conditioner blew our last spare fuse around midnight; Sally must have felt she had to bail out of here just to be able to breathe.

On the living room floor lie the remains of another one of her relentless nights: a cracked Walkman held together by masking tape, a half cup of cold coffee, and the clothbound volume of Shakespeare's sonnets she has been poring over for weeks with growing intensity. Flipping open the book at random I find a blinding crisscross of arrows, definitions, circled words. Sonnet 13 looks like a page from the Talmud, the margins crowded with so much commentary the original text is little more than a speck at the center.

Then there are the papers with Sally's own poems, composed of lines that come to her (so she informed me a few days ago) like birds flying in a window. I pick up one of these fallen birds:

And when everything should be quiet
your fire fights to burn a river of sleep.
Why should the great breath of hell kiss
what you see, my love?