A sudden, shocking death rocks a famous Sydney family and reveals fault lines of mental illness running through male line, causing earthquakes everywhere.
This memoir by Jonathan Seidler, great-nephew of famous architect Harry Seidler, reads like two books. One, a memoir transforming the narrative of severe mental illness and the other, the ‘soundtrack of my life’ based on the author’s obsession with metal band Linkin Park.
I’m not a metal fan and readers who are, may love the chapters minutely dissecting the band’s history and appeal. For my money, the music chapters don’t fit the overall narrative, though the author explains how his personal pain connected with Linkin Park lead singer Chester Bennington’s personal pain in revelatory fashion.
More engaging, is Seidler’s dissection of the mental illness in the Seidler family which they valiantly try to hide and ultimately, accept.
The biggest earthquake is the death of Seidler’s father, Ray, depicted as a lovable hero, a high profile doctor who treated celebrities and junkies with the same care at his King’s Cross clinic. A man who, in a tender and telling detail: ‘protected us from cockroaches but never, ever killed them’.
Behind the scenes of a wealthy, glamourous, gregarious family living near Sydney harbour in the eastern suburbs, Ray Seidler and his wife worked hard for decades to conceal from society his severe mental illness. This illness led to Ray often going under for weeks at a time (with ‘the flu’), doing regular time in ‘the ward’ and leaving the house to go AWOL, to the extent that a security guard was once posted at a family party.
‘None of us ever dared breathe a word about it,’ writes Seidler.
Ray and his wife are also coping, lovingly and supportively with regular earthquakes caused by their eldest son Jonathan’s bi-polar condition, which Jonathan initially frames as a super-power, while relating to the troubled singer Kanye West’s same condition.
For years, it seems Jonathan is bound for a disastrous end, with the author admitting he lay down on four lane street ‘just to see who would stop’ and that ‘it’s a miracle I’m not in jail’ from all the ‘stealing, the lying, the fucking, the drugs, then violence’.
Seidler is ‘a cocktail that becomes stronger with every shake, infusing the madness of his grandfather and the sadness of his father’.
It is a miracle of the author’s making that he does not come to a disastrous end and manages to turn something horrific into something beautiful.
The final quarter of the memoir is surprising and the ending worth staying for. The middle of the novel needing more editing to make the two books (the family story and the soundtrack) either merge seamlessly, High Fidelity style, or break up altogether.
I wondered if having a famous name, a media career and being from the right side of the tracks in Sydney helped this author get his memoir published a few revisions before it was ready.
It’s a shame about ‘It’s a shame about Ray’. If it had received a bit more crafting, it could have socked you between the eyes. To use one of the author’s favourite words ‘dilute’, several diversionary chapters dilute the impact.
It’s still a powerful book about life and hope after a mental illness diagnosis so severe that at times Seidler wanted to take the same option as his father to escape. A book about men and mental health and how hiding and denying it makes it worse. A loving observation of a supportive, high achieving family who were not immune to deep grief, chaos and violent disruption, despite their all their obvious hard work and the love between them.
The sections where Seidler draws on his Jewish roots at the Yizkor ‘Prayer for the dead’, and learns to sit with his grief at his father’s death, feel that pain, then ‘lock someone in your memories, tend to them each year to keep them fresh, and they’re never truly gone’ are moving.
Seidler’s memories of his Dad, who in between mentally unravelling on a regular basis, congratulates his son for learning to ride a bike with a big bear hug, sings his heart out to the Bill Withers classic ‘Lean on me’, bakes bread, slow cooks lamb and makes marmalade, sketch a beautiful and complex portrait of a man who clearly deserves to be remembered forever.
The author’s engulfing fear that his life will follow the same path as his father (I am the lone survivor of an illness that’s stalked the firstborn men in my family for decades) is a driving narrative force that ends satisfyingly, despite the detours and musical meanderings.
It’s brave, it’s raw, it’s more emotional than Australian men usually allow, it’s wildly tangential, it’s loving (of people as well as music) and it’s a story worth telling. There’s lots of dirt and glamourous details of what the Seidler family was really like.
Is it ‘punk as fuck’ as singer/songwriter Megan Washington describes it?
Readers can decide for yourselves.
It’s a Shame about Ray by Jonathan Seidler is published by Allen and Unwin ($32.99). This reviewer picked up a copy from Berkelouw Books in Eumundi.