As a memoir of self-discovery and mental illness, Detour
is a stand-out in the genre, better by far than Marya Hornbacher's maddening and self-indulgent Madness
As for the author's stated goal, which is splashed across the back cover, she failed. To present Detour
as one woman's journey to present a cross-section of other individual struggles with bipolar and a search for commonality across the U.S. would be a wretched disservice to the book. (In fairness to the author, about 3/4 of the way through the book, she blatantly gives up, saying as much and recognizing that she won't achieve the incredibly ambitious goal she set for herself.)
The original intent of the book was brilliant: travel the continental U.S., searching out and interviewing other young bipolar success stories in order to discover a sort of extended, supportive family. This book doesn't present that, although I find that to be a shame. I think Simon could have succeeded in her goal if she had planned better and had not depended so much on sheer luck in the beginning. Without keeping in mind that privacy laws would end up preventing medical professionals and even leaders of support groups and mental health associations from speaking with her, except for in the most general of terms, Simon handicapped her own project from the start. Beyond that, her system of contacting support group and health associations had, in my opinion, an unforeseen drawback: the success stories
, the type of people she was looking for, probably would not be found in those kinds of settings. She eventually faced all this through the process of trial and error, and the reader realizes pretty quickly that this is not the story of her project, this is the story of Simon becoming more comfortable with herself and with her illness.
(Someone should still try and complete the task Simon outlined in the book, however. I think it's brilliant, and I think, if carried out properly, it could touch a lot of people who really need it.)
There are only two things about Detour
that I found to be jarring, even distasteful, and perhaps a little hypocritical, and neither of those are the "failure" of the stated project.
First, Simon limited herself to a very tight, very elitist definition of success. She wanted young people who were in the spotlight, who were doing amazing things, who were creative and pillars of their communities. She wanted highly function, highly successful bipolar stories without relapse, without multiple failures. All this is fine, but she failed to take into account other types of success: those who managed to treat their illness and contribute to their greater communities, be a positive influence in their families, manage a social circle and life outside of their illness, and who were able, despite their own mind and body's rebellion, to have jobs and careers and be self-supporting. None of that is the glamorous side to success Simon was looking for, but to many, many people with mental illness, just having a regular life, complete with family, friends, a career, and the stability all that brings, is an incredible amount of success. And I think, sadly, Simon forgot that in her search to find these brightly burning stars of the bipolar universe. In fact, she even, at times, seems to sneer at those who saw their 8-to-5 jobs and personal responsibilities as success; the only time she comes close to realizing how amazing that level is for many people is during the final interview with Sara, who stated as much. Success is knowing what you can and cannot do without falling apart again, and Simon doesn't seem to take that into consideration.
Second, every time she made an appointment to shadow a support group meeting, I cringed. She states throughout the book that she's trying to fight the stigma attached to the mentally ill, that she's trying to dispel all the stereotypes, and yet...her own mentality is one full of both. To sit in a support group meeting and mock (mentally, in writing, or to their faces) the people there is horrendous and enormously hypocritical. Her reactions to the people at the support group and her anger that they aren't the "type" of people she's looking for reads as much more a reflection on Simon's state of mind than on the people who were kind enough to try and help her. While not uncommon, it did take away considerably from the impact of the book, at least for me. Furthermore, though this is certainly not a big part of the book, her casual dismissive attitude regarding unipolar depression is somewhat irksome. When referring to regular depression as opposed to bipolar, she actually writes, "...she was just unipolar." Seemingly unimportant, but jarring to anyone who knows unipolar depression is anything but "just."
However, despite a shallow and half-assed attempt at the stated goal for the book, Detour
is not a failure. In fact, I wish it had been longer, and I wish she had delved more into her own thought processes. Not just the cycles she went through or the causes of the illness, but why she had come to her beliefs regarding bipolar, how her opinions about the illness were formed, etc. When she stopped focusing on the external and turned inward to her own struggle, she found her niche and wrote a fresh, honest memoir. Brutally honest, stripped down, and unflinching, her descriptions of her illness, of her thought processes, and even of her own journey through bipolar are some of the most poignant writing on the subject I've read. Several times, she described thoughts or feelings that had me nodding, having felt exactly the same way. Simon is not a shoddy writer, and her staccato style was effective in moving the narrative along. Really well done, especially, as I said before, it's quite obvious from early on that this was not
about presenting bipolar illness as a society. Detour
was, as it should have been, about Lizzie Simon. There is nothing wrong with that, and when she realized it, the book really caught fire.
I just wish she had realized it earlier. Detour
is good, but it could have been so much more. I wish she had delved deeper, but still, not a bad read, and certainly not a bad start.