Of all the mysteries we humans have yet to unlock, the brain is the one which tops the list. In particular, the mentally defective brain. Study it all we want, revealing chemical imbalances in this area or that, our knowledge remains incomplete. Why else would entire professions be based around revealing the secrets of the human brain? We can quantify what is “wrong” in the head of people such as Michael Bottoms, the subject of this memoir, inexact science or not; however, no matter how in depth a study is undertaken, the brain is an impenetrable fortress with room in it for only one occupant.
You can look at the blueprint, speak to its creators (the parents), or even task the inhabitant him or herself with sketching out what it’s like, but none of these tactics will work, just as it would be a waste if I were to ask you to describe what “red” is to you. Whether you take the literal approach, by either pointing to an item of that color or reciting what you learned in school about the science of colors, or the figurative one, by explaining it in more poetic and uncertain terms, I will no more see your red than you will mine.
Language is as hazy a thing as the ideas we try to bend and twist it into conveying. The end result is filtered and there’s no knowing if what you’ve inadvertently stripped away was essential for one’s understanding or not. With someone like Michael, the process is even less exact. As his brother mentions on various occasions in the book, Michael was forever lost in translation. Prior to his diagnosis of acute schizophrenia, his parents laid blame for his haphazard behavior on illicit substances.
Following it, other members of the community in which they lived proved themselves as blissfully unaware of how far gone Michael was as his parents once were, upholding the tradition in which a purported murderer is outed by the town as some sort of saint in what is likely a subconscious effort to assuage their own feelings of guilt for not seeing him for what he was all along.
They were all so under Michael’s “spell,” so to speak, that the little matter of his being schizophrenic went unnoticed, his confession taken as gospel until the evidence, and his teetering mental state, joined together to disprove it. To his brother Greg, his brother must’ve seemed sane by comparison to those who bought Michael’s story wholesale, missing the telltale signs that this was a man whose words were not to be trusted.
This is all to make clear how misunderstood Michael was; unfortunately, it was this that helped precipitate his downfall. If his parents hadn’t been as blind and naive as the other townspeople were years later, maybe it’s not too late, Michael too far gone, when he undergoes those various treatments to curb the worst of his schizophrenia.
Greg understood better than his parents what Michael was suffering from, and he tries admirably to find the words where his brother couldn’t, Michael occasionally recounting events from his viewpoint to his brother, but what he ends up revealing, intentional or not, is how illusive his brother and his illness were in every aspect.
Only in hindsight can he piece together what eventually killed his brother (as well as his father, in a sense), making Angelhead akin to a post mortem. In this case, the murder weapon was his own mind, which turned in on itself, preventing Michael himself from making sense of its machinations. Except, in doing his examination, he finds no answers, only more questions.
He can wager guesses as to what ran through his brother’s mind, what caused his increasingly hostile actions, yet guesses are all they’ll ever be. Due to this, Angelhead becomes, in effect, the tale of him and his family. Because no post mortem would be complete without looking at the loved ones he threatened to drag down with him, who clung to him at the same time as they shoved him away in an act of self preservation.
Watching those conflicting interests play out is what drew me in to Greg’s story. The passages wherein he hopes to give the reader a glimpse at the world through Michael’s eyes left me rapt as well, but not for the reasons you would think. What caught my attention was how they seemed as much for his own benefits as ours; however, write all he wants, he cannot resurrect the dead, let alone see things as they saw them.
In the end, he knows no more than we do. The result is a true testament to the effects of mental illness. They are beyond comprehension, a fact that Greg outlines in vivid detail. In short, Angelhead is what happens when an alien race arrives intent upon destroying your world and you don’t have Jeff Goldblum to write a virus that is somehow compatible with alien technology. Except the alien race means no harm. It’s merely misunderstood and confused in its actions, like a young girl who beats on her crush, a misguided display of affection.
The difference is, the young girl eventually grows up, whereas Michael grows down, and this confused relationship he has with reality can only end one of two ways, with him dying or him bringing everyone else down with him. I’m just glad his inadvertent victims got out in time to avoid the inevitable crash landing. Everyone but his father, at least. Thanks to that, we get one of the most heartwrenchingly honest views of mental illness that I’ve come across, and one which receives my highest recommendation.
Travis Smith’s blog, containing this review, as well as others, photography, and more, can be found here.