Books featuring a sibling with a mental illness

Book Review: Not My Father

Author: Julie Kay
Genre: Memoir
Publisher: Vivid (division of Fontaine) 2019

A drawing of two people viewed from behind. Left: A man in military uniform. Right: A woman wearing a kimono and holding an umbrella over her shoulder.
Image source
ID: A drawing of two people viewed from behind. Left: A man in military uniform. Right: A woman wearing a kimono and holding an umbrella over her shoulder.

While packing up the family home, Danny’s daughter, Jules, finds a black box hidden at the back of his wardrobe. Danny suffers from post-traumatic stress syndrome and has been in and out of psychiatric hospitals for years. The unexpected contents of his box take Jules and her sister on a journey to find out what really happened to their father in occupied Japan after the war. What they discover is a love story about ordinary people–a man and a woman, a child and a father–who lived extraordinary lives.

I saw this on the shelf at an independent book shop and picked it up at the mention of a father who lived with post traumatic stress syndrome. Although it’s not a memoir I’d reread, I’m so glad it exists.

In some ways, this reminded me of Ruth Clare’s memoir, Enemy. Both fathers were haunted by their experiences of war and both exhibited violent behaviour as a result. The difference between not My Father and Enemy (as well as many other COPMI (child of a parent with a mental illness) books) is that Danny’s symptoms only properly emerged once Julie was an adult and had children of her own. Kay highlighted the difficulties faced by many carers of loved ones with mental health challenges, such as the awareness of stigma. Kay felt guilty because she “wished so many times that dad had a heart condition” as “people shied away from mental illness.” As many readers would understand, medical and physical conditions are unfortunately often a lot easier to discuss.

There were a couple of elements of the memoir I didn’t enjoy. For instance, the dialogue was quite clunky at times, and there were repeated spelling and grammatical errors. There was also a hint of judgement in the descriptions of other patients in the psychiatric hospitals in which her father stayed. However, while the prose didn’t carry me away, I recognize, and the author acknowledged, that the point of this memoir was to tell her father’s story, and Julie Kay certainly did that.

Not My Father was a personal story that explored some universal themes.

You can buy a copy of Not My Father from Readings online booksellers.

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