Emma Forrest’s Your Voice In My Head is ostensibly a memoir, but it’s also a tribute to the first psychiatrist who truly helped Emma manage her bipolar disorder, which was so severe she’d gone through a particularly scary suicide attempt. I’m not sure if reviewing this book is journalistically ethical, not just because the author is my friend, but because I’m actually in this book. Then again, being a witness to much of the book’s action does give my opinion a different kind of credibility.
When I met Emma, she was 21 and had just moved to New York from her hometown of London, where she had already established herself as a journalist after dropping out of high school at 15 to write a column about youth culture for the Times of London. She writes about her childhood in the book, from her father’s eccentricities to her adventures during London’s brit pop heyday, but her life starts to get truly dark when she moves to the states, suffers through a bad break-up, and starts feeling her mood go haywire. This would be the exact period of time when Emma and I became friends.
Being fairly young myself when we met, I wasn’t wise to symptoms of bipolar, so I didn’t recognize how off-balance Emma could be. In my eyes, she was funny in the way British people sometimes are, clever with a gift for one-liners and non-sequiturs. In subsequent years, and especially after reading the book, I have a new understanding of her life during that time, which I interpreted as fun and glamorous, as if she was the adult Eloise of the West Village. When I once complimented her crazy hair color and she cheerfully told me it was her attempt to resemble her late cat from childhood, I figured it made her kooky, not so depressed that even her haircut reflected her brain’s constant fixation on death. She writes of her love of Magnolia Bakery, which she lived across from back then, and I remember how we’d sit in front of her building with friends on lawn chairs, sexually harrassing nerdy bike messengers and eating cupcakes. All those times, I never thought someone as confident and hilarious as Emma would be going upstairs and throwing hers up.
What I’ve always liked about both Emma and her writing is her sense of humor, and while her previous novel about a girl breaking down, Thin Skin, was well-written but grim, Your Voice In My Head is unflinchingly, darkly funny. Just as she enters a relationship with the man she thinks will be her husband, her beloved psychiatrist dies, and when that man abruptly leaves her soon after she learns about her doctor’s death, she’s left to put together the pieces all by herself.
Here, again, the book pulls no punches, because she’s not afraid to describe every stupid thing she did in the wake of that break-up and make fun of herself in turn, like when she has rebound sex with her landlord’s friend after he rescues her cat from a tree. “I go into the house to find a thank-you present,” she writes. “I can’t find anything good so I give him my vagina.” Only Emma would describe her second, aborted suicide attempt as “like Vatican II, this one. New resolutions. We forgive the Jews. Many regretti.”
I love Your Voice In My Head, not just because I seem sensible in my few appearances, but because it’s one of the few books about bipolar that successfully balances truth, tragedy, and humor. Emma was crazy, she was sad, she was foolish, but this book makes it clear that, through it all, she was the funny, warm person I met a million years ago.