You can’t, you shouldn’t, go home again. Still you do, and must
John Michael Cummings’s recent novel is a heartbreaking and highly-charged portrait of one family’s struggle with abuse, mental illness, death and grief. When narrator Mark Barr’s bother dies unexpectedly, he must return to his hometown of Alma, West Virginia after a decade of absence to honor Steve’s last wishes and bury him next to their grandfather. But when Mark’s family cannot agree on how to handle Steve’s physical remains, emotions run high and each member of the family must face their personal demons before healing can begin.
Before Steve died, he struggled with severe and debilitating mental illness for the majority of his life. Between psychiatric evaluations, rounds of prescription medication and therapy, Steve was over-medicated and “brain-washed” into mental and physical submission. Mark knew that his brother struggled with depression and anxiety, but he didn’t know how poorly Steve responded to treatment, and he is completely shocked at how casually his family views Steve’s condition. They seem to perceive mental illness as a form of personal weakness – a condition to be ashamed of rather than a legitimate and extremely complicated health problem.
Having struggled with a baffling array of mental illnesses himself, Mark is grieving and looking for someone to blame. His father is the easiest target – an old, stubborn man who wasn’t afraid to backhand his kids on a regular basis and hasn’t shed a single tear for his dead son. And to Mark, neither his brothers or mother filled the role of his protector. Blinded by grief, guilt, shame, and fear, Mark does his best to punish the family by picking at old wounds and reliving painful memories. Sometimes, things have to get worse before they get better, right?
Unfortunately, mental illness does not follow traditional medicine’s formula for diagnosis and treatment. If you’ve ever struggled with mental illness of any kind, then you know how wildly inconsistent treatments can be. Some may improve the condition, while others exacerbate the symptoms. For loved ones, it is especially difficult to witness a person in this state and be completely clueless about how to help them. After years and years of this emotional and physical roller-coaster, everyone involved is exhausted and resentful – and this is especially true for the Barr family.
But Mark is no hero, either. He recognizes many of their father’s traits within himself and is constantly looking for a way to redeem himself for the sins of his past and his family. But even Mark soon realizes that he neglected his brother just as much as the rest of the family – too ashamed and afraid of becoming like Steve to get close enough to help. As the family prepares for Steve’s funeral, these painful memories and regrets reach a boiling point and Mark finally confronts the “reckoning” he predicted from page one.
Don’t forget Me, Bro is an expertly-crafted and painfully realistic account of what happens when mental illness intersects with abuse, poverty, and misinformation in the South. Alma is an Appalachian town that time forgot, which is actually a perfect metaphor for mental illness – a rugged and isolated landscape that is often neglected by its governmental and local protectors. And as a lifelong southerner myself, I can attest to this dichotomy firsthand. Appalachia contains well-maintained, highly-protected nature reserves and national parks, breathtaking views, and a wide array of tourist attractions. But it’s also one of the most deeply-impoverished, undereducated, physically unhealthy, and socially unjust regions of the country. It’s no wonder the mental healthcare system is so contradictory.
Cummings is sharp-witted and articulate in his writing – a difficult feat considering the elusive subject matter. And if you’re looking for a tale of heart-warming redemption, you won’t find it here. You will, however, find an engrossing, honest, and empathetic account of the bravery, will-power, and perseverance it takes to endure mental illness on a daily basis.
Don’t Forget Me, Bro
By John Michael Cummings
Stephen F Austin State University Press