A Kind of Magic
A Kind of Magic
Where do mental illness stories begin?
Anna’s always had too many feelings. Or not enough feelings - she’s never been quite sure. Debilitating panic. Extraordinary melancholy. Paranoia. Ambivalence. Fear. Despair.
From anxious child to terrified parent, mental illness has been a constant. A harsh critic in the big moments - teenage pregnancy, divorce, a dream career, falling in love - and a companion in the small ones - getting to the supermarket, feeding all her cats, remembering which child is which. But between therapists’ rooms and emergency departments, there’s been a feeling even harder to explain … optimism.
In this sharp-eyed and illuminating memoir, award-winning writer Anna Spargo-Ryan pieces together the relationships between time, mental illness, and our brain as the keeper of our stories. Against the backdrop of her own experience, she interrogates reality, how it can be fractured, and why it’s so hard to put it back together.
Powerfully honest, tender and often funny, A Kind of Magic blends meticulous research with vivid snapshots of the stuff that breaks us, and the magic of finding ourselves again.
Anna Spargo-Ryan’s A Kind of Magic is a memoir of a mind and the courage it takes to build a sense of self. Spargo-Ryan has lived with mental illness as a constant in her life. As a child, she was gripped with persistent anxiety that something terrible would happen. As a young person just out of high school, she weathered extreme stretches of dissociation – ‘my brain protected itself from itself, sliding more and more layers of glass between me and the world’. She has experienced overwhelming thoughts and feelings that can cause her to question her sense of worth, her memories of the past, her place in time – in effect, her confidence in the reality of the life she has built for herself.
And yet, what a life it is. As you read this powerful memoir, what becomes apparent is how hard Spargo-Ryan has worked to carve out something loving, meaningful and hers, and how scrupulously she assesses her own mental health history. Too often discussions of mental illness can tend toward over-simplification and diagnostic criteria – people want to ‘understand’ what’s wrong with someone – at the expense of the experiences of the person themselves. A Kind of Magic wants to right that imbalance. It rejects the easiness of linear narrative and causal family histories; instead Spargo-Ryan skips around moments of her life, asking probing questions and turning them over and over against the light to explore their facets: ‘I offer my own story as evidence I can build a self. As an interrogation of the connective tissue that exists inside me somewhere.’
This is not an esoteric book by any measure. Spargo-Ryan writes with lucid beauty and an eye for small details that animate a memory. Her language is clear and accessible, and her tone is calm and authoritative, occasionally juddering into a visceral stream of consciousness to immerse the reader in an experience of psychosis, or rising into impassioned rhetoric to rail against the failures of our mental health system. If you enjoy emotive memoirs that blend introspection, deep research and stylish prose, this will be essential reading.
Jackie Tang is the editor of Readings Monthly.
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