The curse of mental illness is explored in a new documentary about Mariel Hemingway, the actor granddaughter of Ernest, and her authority is beyond doubt.
Its no secret that the Hemingway family is heaving with mental illness, but its never easy to untangle the depression from thedrink-soaked fameto explain the suicides that plagued thewriters family on the order of a mental illness bloodbath.
Running From Crazy, from the two-time Oscar-winning director Barbara Kopple, doesnt pander to gossip. The camera follows Mariel Hemingway as she embraces sanity and her wellness regime and the great outdoors, speaking publicly about mental illness and working out with her partner.
As she takes you into her world, you might wish youshared Mariel’spassion for healthy living. You mightjust envyher charmed life–right up until you view some remarkablefamily footage, mostly of her sister Margaux, themodel who committed suicide in 1996, following in the footsteps of her grandfather and his father, Dr. Clarence Hemingway.
In 1928the writer’s fathershot himself in the head at home. Ernest, who wason his way back to his Key West home,returned to Oak Park, Ill.,for the funeral while finishing A Farewell to Arms.
In the documentary, a portrait of family dysfunction comes together through his granddaughter. Mariels parents were big drinkers and brawlers. She believes her father Jack had sexually abused Margaux and her other older sister Joan, whos been institutionalized with manic depression for long stretches of her adult life.
Joan (a k a Muffet), in the 1970s aski bumin Ketchum, Idaho, where her Papa Hemingway had settled the family,claims an acid trip at 16 gave her manic-depression. Whatever had tipped the balance forher,the ordeal of childhood sexual abuse has a veryhigher association with adult psychosis.
For generations suicide has been the deadliest Hemingway disorder, seven in all going that way. The great man’sfeeling was that mankind itself was hard-wired. Forget your personal tragedy, he growled at F. Scott Fitzgerald. Were all bitched from the start.
True enough, tens of millions of less remarkable families struggle. More than one in four Americans ages 18 and oldersome 65 million in allhas a diagnosable disorder, suicide being the terminal stop for about 37,000 Americans a year. More than 90 percent of these individuals, in turn, have a mental illness diagnosis.
So, it seems, for most families, it’s never just one thing.
Is Fame Insane?
Mariels father, Jack, blamed the Hemingway curse on fame, but madness isnt pickyabout which families it chooses to visit. Her sister Muffet may be a Hemingway, but shes just one of some 2.4 million very ordinary Americans that has a diagnosis of bipolar manic depression in any given year. An equal number has schizophrenia.
Nor are the ones who go mad necessarily the ones who took more drugs. In my own family, my sister Austine (diagnosis of schizophrenia) tripped a few times, but it was nothing to compare with her younger brother’smisadventures.
All those sisters and the mishmash of mental illnesses andsubstance abusereminds me of my own family. Which is odd because we all had an occasion to meet in real life a few years ago.Not to name drop or blow my own trumpet, but it was in March of 2009 and I had my four sisters there with me for an awards ceremony given by the Hemingway family.
I chatted for ten minutes with PatrickMariels uncle, Ernests son, a sweet man, genuinely cheerful and friendly–but I couldn’t help but wonder what itwas liketo have Papa Hemingwayas his papa. All thatmacho self-confidence can cut both ways.
Did the fear-courage theme that defined the classic Hemingway hero, and the writer himself, somehow consume sons Jack and Patrick?Did Jack somehow consume his daughters?
Did their father, theliterarymaster,take his own life 33 years after hisownDaddid, and some 35 years before his granddaughter would, for reasons we’ll ever beable to fathom?
The message from “Running From Crazy” lies in the importance of taking care of oneself whenwe arepowerless over family dysfunction, of which we know much.
Like his brother and father, Patrick had undergone electro shock therapy after suffering a mental breakdown in 1947.
When we me four years ago, I could seethat Patrickwas his father’s son, yet without any of thealpha male machismo that defined the literary giant.
We didn’t talk about mental illness that spring day in Boston at the JFK Libary and Museum.We weretoo busy laughing it up, joking, calling each other “namesake.”
Andthen, like us,in a flash, the Hemingwayswere gone.