Off the Reservation by Michael Rossi
My Review: 3 Stars
This is a personal memoir of life with bipolar disorder (or borderline personality disorder – it’s not clearly identified and is sometimes referred to as one or the other). I received a free copy in exchange for an honest review. This is an independent publication that is generally meticulously edited. One glaring error – at one point it says, ‘Any and I’s’, which should say, ‘Amy’s and my.’ Even 80% further on into the book, that was in my head and bugging me. Otherwise, the author is very good with language.
I have mixed feelings about this book. I really enjoyed the first 70%. I liked watching the narrator (author) grow up. I say ‘liked’ but actually, it’s not a pleasant childhood. I more mean I think it was portrayed strongly, you could relate to the author in some way; you could understand and appreciate his emotions and reactions and he was suitably sympathetic, which is what you’d hope for from an autobiography. There were also some beautiful moments of writing and touching / thought-provoking reflections on life. The author makes no attempt to justify any of his ‘sins’, as he calls them, but I believe he hopes for some form of ‘redemption’ (perhaps from readers?).
This is where it gets a bit sticky, for me. First, there was a slightly challenging defensive tone to the introduction to the book that amounted to, ‘I expect you to hate me, I dare you not to. My life was so horrible, you probably won’t even believe me.’ I can only assume the author has felt this way at points in his life. However, I didn’t find anything in this book shocking. I felt more sympathetic than surprised, so in my view, the introduction was unwarranted and unnecessary, and a little off-putting before I’d even got into the book. This trickles into the book blurb, as well; if I were the author, I would amend this. There are also moments in the book itself when the narration comes across the same way, and it’s unpleasant. If readers pay to read the author’s story, I think he should tone down the ‘I expect you to hate me, so I’ll make it really clear I hate myself enough for the both of us before you have a chance to say it to me’ lines. Even the subtitle suggests the author believes he should have killed himself.
My other issue was the last 30% of the story. This feels a little awkward to say, because I suppose in a way it’s a comment on the author’s life. He said several times that the reader would disapprove or abhor him for his actions, but I felt bored. I found myself skimming through scene after scene of him taking drugs and sleeping around, because it was just so repetitive. It made me wonder how the author could stand the monotony of his own life during that time. From a writing perspective, you can’t have that much repetition. I think even memoirs need to follow certain structural conventions, so you don’t lose the audience.
Then, in literally the last 1% of the book, we’re told the author was admitted to a mental hospital. Presumably this is where he was diagnosed, because at no point in the rest of the book is this explained. I don’t know when he worked out what was wrong, or who told him, how old he was, how it affected him, etc. I would have thought the mental hospital phase of his life had impacted and changed him in some way, but we’re never shown any of it. If I were the editor, I would ask for the last 30% of repetitive sex and drugs to be removed, a page inserted to explain that by the time he was such-and-such age he was in such-and-such state and he made his suicide attempt (as described at the end of the book) and he landed in the hospital, etc. and then shown that for 30% of the word count, instead.
I would also hope for some sort of conclusion. Despite how many moments of insight the author had throughout his life, at the end there was very little. It was simply one paragraph to say all we can hope for is to find someone we can ‘tolerate’ enough to want to spend the rest of our lives with. I found this bleak beyond measure. Even if you haven’t found love or known what that’s really like, surely you can hope for something more than ‘tolerating’ your companion. Such an ending left me wondering why I’d read the last 99% of the story. Having edited someone’s memoir of life with schizo-affective disorder, it’s my view that if you’re going to write your autobiography, you ought to have something to say with it. Otherwise, it really is simply, ‘Life is hell, let me show you.’ I suppose the author doesn’t feel like things will get better, and therein lies a great difficulty: despite having bipolar disorder myself, I am a hopeless optimist and like to think there’s a point to life.
I felt this book was more about the author getting his feelings out on paper than anything else – which is fantastic from a therapeutic perspective, but I don’t know what it gives readers, especially if there’s no discussion about the diagnosis or treatment he’s undergone. You’ll only ever read this book if a) you’re diagnosed yourself, in which case you’d probably want some form of hope, b) you know someone with the condition, in which case you’d want more explanation of what’s going on, what the treatment process is like, whether that helps or not, what hospitals are like, whether there’s any hope at all for your loved one, etc., or c) you have an interest in the subject of mental disorders, in which case again you’d want some form of medical insight included. Sadly, this book doesn’t have any of that.