While You Were Out: An Intimate Family Portrait of Mental Illness in an Era of Silence by award-winning journalist and debut author Meg Kissinger confronts the devastating toll of mental illness on families in the United States. She tells the gripping story of eight siblings growing up with bipolar disorder and depression, and parents struggling with their own demons. Kissinger is brilliantly witty and heartbreakingly frank as she colors in the particular personalities of her sisters and brothers and describes the domestic chaos of their Wilmette, Ill., home, cherishing its coziness despite getting lost in the shuffle. Her recounting of their adventure-fueled antics is reminiscent of some of David Sedaris's best essays.
Kissinger, a journalism professor and investigative reporter who spent 20 years reporting on disgraceful conditions in mental health facilities across the country, had to confront the ethics of involuntary commitment, and what she refers to as the "third rail" of the mental health system: "when should a person's right to autonomy yield to their safety or the safety of others?" With a sister and brother lost to suicide, the haunting question of how they might have been saved lingers throughout the book. Learning about another person's in-depth experiences with emotional disorders in their family can offer cathartic support to readers dealing with similar struggles in their own lives. Kissinger is achingly honest about the fragile familial spaces left exposed by her siblings' suicides, while pointing to the redemptive power of sharing the pain openly, and rejecting the silence that previously paralyzed them. --Shahina Piyarali, reviewer