Vonnegut’s second memoir picks up on struggles, successes
Mark Vonnegut, the oldest son of the late Kurt Vonnegut, suffered a mental breakdown at 23 and was hospitalized. Five years later he got into Harvard Medical School. He became a successful pediatrician in Boston and wrote about his illness and recovery in a highly praised memoir, “The Eden Express,’’ in 1975.
“It was a perfectly good story with a perfectly good ending,’’ Vonnegut notes in his remarkable new memoir, but it didn’t end there. He suffered three more psychotic breaks. Then, at the time of the fourth and last one in 1985, he was “an almost-40-year-old, home-owning, married father of two boys who was on the faculty of Harvard Medical School and who coached soccer.’’ He had recently been named “the number one pediatrician by Boston magazine’’ and felt “it’s important to me that I owned the house they took me out of in a straightjacket.’’
After that last recovery he realized “Alcoholism and mental illness aren’t very different and I had both.’’ He got into Alcoholics Anonymous and returned to his practice, but whatever peace Mark and his first wife had “couldn’t survive my not drinking.’’ Fourteen years after their divorce he married a woman he had known for six years; they now have an 8-year-old, and Mark continues his successful medical practice.
Vonnegut inherited histories of mental illness on both sides of his family, and in one of many fascinating accounts of what it was like growing up with a still-struggling writer father he says: “I spent much of my childhood worried that Kurt would kill himself. . . . From time to time, in an almost conversational tone, he mentioned that he might commit suicide. There didn’t seem to be much anguish involved. . . . My mother . . . believed more than he did that he would someday be a famous writer, and she promoted and clung to that belief as a way to make sure that he didn’t kill himself.’’
Vonnegut says he’ll remember his father “as the world’s worst car salesman who couldn’t get a job teaching English at Cape Cod Community College.’’ With the publication of “Slaughterhouse-Five’’ in 1969 his father “went from being poor to being famous and rich in the blink of an eye. No one [in the family], except him, ever got used to it.’’
Mark’s own travails have given him a unique and sensitive understanding. “There are no people anywhere who don’t have some mental illness. It all depends on where you set the bar and how hard you look. What is a myth is that we are mostly mentally well most of the time.’’ When he got sober he heard music by John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk, Aaron Copland, and others “like I had never heard them before. They too seemed to be trying to tell the truth to save their own lives, and I was intensely grateful.’’
They were doing as musicians what Mark Vonnegut does as a writer, like his father did before him; and we, too, should be grateful.
Dan Wakefield’s books include “New York in the ’50s.’’ He can be reached through his website at www.danwakefield.com.