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"While You Were Out: An Intimate Family Portrait of Mental Illness" | Reviewed by Pat Sainz

This compulsively readable memoir by award-winning journalist Meg Kissinger reflects a worldwide truth: it is most likely that not one family has escaped a diagnosis of mental illness within its line of descent. When Kisssinger was growing up in the 1960s and 1970s, talking about pervasive mental illness in her family, even acknowledging it, was verboten. This was not unusual for the times.

Kissinger was the fourth of 8 children born to Bill and Jean Kissinger within a span of 12 years beginning in 1952. Both parents, while often loving, were beset with their own mental health issues. Bill was a volatile, bipolar alcoholic, and Jean was anxiety-ridden, depressed, and overwhelmed with caring for 8 children while her husband traveled for business most of the time.

Many times, Kissinger would wake up to find her mother gone for days or weeks at a time, with no explanation. No one told the children that their mother was in a mental health facility. When Jean would unexpectedly return, she was taking so many meds that she was on emotionless autopilot as she carried out the rigors of childcare. Jean, too, became an alcoholic, almost dying in the process.

Along with Kissinger’s parents, some of the 8 children suffered from mental health issues. Two of her siblings committed suicide. Decent mental health facilities were unavailable, and effective medicines were non-existent, especially for children and teens.

When their sister committed suicide, the Kissinger children were warned to tell friends that it was an accident. Embarrassment was at the root of their parent’s advice. Plus, suicide was a mortal sin in the eyes of the Catholic Church, and Bill and Jean wanted their daughter buried in the Catholic cemetery.

By the time Danny died, the church had softened its stance so there wasn’t as much hiding what had happened in the family, but Danny’s stints in jail and mentions in newspapers ensured that it wasn’t such a surprise to anyone.

Both of Kissinger’s parents became sober before they died, and their improved kinder behavior towards their remaining children softened the pain of earlier years. Kissinger remembers her family as happy most of the time. Still, no one talked about the illnesses that had trapped their family in an endless cycle of despair.

Lack of adequate care and facilities was too often the result of broken promises by politicians, including those of former Governor Scott Walker of Minneapolis, the state where the author resides. Kissinger’s investigative reporting helped change many of the ways mental health patients were treated in Minnesota. Even so, it wasn’t until the Affordable Care Act in 2010 that mental health services were covered on par with medical care.

In spite of the poignancy and grimness of the story, the author unfolds her memories with laugh-out-loud humor. Kissinger writes with profound honesty and wisdom. She reflects on the grace and love her parents exhibited in spite of their overwhelming troubles. The 5 remaining children, including the author, went on to have exceptional careers.

Meg Kissinger was a Pulitzer Prize finalist for her investigative reporting on abysmal living conditions for people with mental illness. Kissinger has won many journalism awards.

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